book review: Freedom in Congo Square

IMG_1359title: Freedom in Congo Square
author: Carole Boston Weatherford
illustrator: R. Gregory Christie
date: Little Bee Books/Bonnier Publishing, 2016
picture book


Freedom in Congo Square is all about Sunday.

From Monday through Saturday, life without work is rare. The enslaved men and women labor in straight lines.

Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie tell of the work, the fear and the underlying thought of one day in freedom in Congo Square. Here, the enslavement transcend into free movements, curvaceous, rhythmical movements.


“It was a market and a gathering ground where African Music could resound.”

Freddi Williams Evans, historian and Congo Square expert has written a forward to the book that squarely explains and sets the stage for the book. Readers know Congo Square is a real place with a long history that began when enslaved Africans gathered there on Sunday, the holy day, to attend church, sell food, dance and listen to music. Here, where enslaved people could gather with family and friends on this one day they owned. yes indeed, slaves smiled.

They knew from where they came.


The simple telling, the undercurrent of hope, message of resistance and the bold, imaginative artwork give way to a narrative that is quite appropriate for any age child

book review: My Name is Henry Bibb

FC9781553378136title: My Name is Henry Bibb: A story of slavery and freedom
by: Afua Cooper
date: Kids Can Press, 2009
main character: Henry Bibb
middle grade biography



The light hurt my eyes so I kept them closed. I was drowsy, lulled by my mother’s cooing and the warmth of her body. Then I heard her say, “Listen, little one I have a story to tell you.” I suddenly grew alert. “You are as beautiful as the sun.” Then she began, in a sad but sweet voice.”

My Name is Henry Bibb is a biography of Henry Bibb, a black man who escaped slavery in Kentucky and found freedom in Canada. By devoting his live to the freedom of others, he has a become a significant figure in Afro Canadian history. Bibb authored his autobiography, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave in 1849.

Afua Cooper’s biography begins with Bibb’s birth and takes us up to his escape to Canada. Her epilogue describes Bibb’s later years but nowhere does she cite her sources. Bibbs was the subject of her dissertation. Cooper is recognized for her poetry and her skill to say more with fewer words is made evident in this book.

Cooper never relates that Bibb is the son of Kentucky state senator James Bibb, she lets this be Henry’s story. His mother planted the seed of freedom early when she spoke of Africans walking on water, telling Henry that so much more was within him. Through the character Shadrach, readers find that escape can be mental or physical. Henry performed many acts of resistance but he could not continue to survive under the conditions imposed upon him.

By not straying from the daily beatings and struggles  that Henry faced, Cooper leads the reader to understand that running away from his enslavement was the only option for him. Only freedom will bring him the peace he needs.

Cooper’s writing allows readers to begin to understand the complexities of enslavement and how black men and women, particularly Henry Bibb, fought against it.


My week began at a campus wide workshop on social justice. I looked forward to hearing something new and different on this topic, but not to the intense level of personal sharing, not on a Monday morning and not with a crowd somewhat unaware of entitlements. The presenters, Kathy Obear and Vernon Wall, were excellent and I believe appropriately met people where they were. I can’t let my own ‘just tell me what I need to know’ attitude ignore the power of a workshop that pushed people to engage and discuss about personal experiences with entitlement. It’s the personal experience that makes all the difference when you don’t really know people who live outside your ethnic, gender or ability experience. Books can provide these experiences, too.

Obear and Wall kept referring to research that documents the importance of diversity in the workplace and my thoughts kept wandering to information industries (entertainment, technology and publishing) that lack diversity.

I’ve so far traced the diversity movement, the call for better representation of African American children back to the 1930s. While I’m sure it can go back further and deeper by looking at Latinos, Native Americans, Asians and those who are LGBTQIA fighting separate and similar fights, when you look at these years and years of knocking on the door, don’t you have to wonder how much longer we’ll keep knocking, and why? I often wonder why more haven’t followed Lee & Low or Just Us books to create publishing companies for marginalized people. I know there are many such as Zetta Elliott, Kwame Alexander, Myles Johnson, Kwame Nyong’o and Innosanto Nagara who have done their own publisher and I know libraries are doing more and more to support local, independent writers. Will this movement continue to grow? There is no more work in marketing for beginning writings whether they are self-published or with a traditional publisher, so why not?

Today’s NY Times features an article by Molly McCardle that moves us beyond counting books and workers, beyond breaking down 100 years worth of reasoning for better representation and puts the next move squarely with publishers. She tells them essentially to get with the 21st century. Because, as noted above, authors do not need publishers to be able to deliver their stories to readers.

I went on a tirade on Twitter the other day just tired of “what will you say to white writers who want to write diverse stories”? I’m tired of de-centering the need for diversity, of moving away from the fact that marginalized stories need to tell their own stories. I would ask those white writers what are they willing to do to get more authors of color to press? I would ask if they realize there are publishers who will look at two books, both with African American characters, one written by a white author and one by a black author and they will choose print the book by the white author. I would ask those white authors how often they purchase and promote books by queer authors. I’d say if you’re going to write diversity, live it. And, I’d say understand that there are unseen forces at work. A book can be written by a white author with not a single marginalized character but can still work to promote social justice and equity, can still exist sans Whiteness and can do this unintentionally by one who lives social justice and equity.

Believe it or not, I haven’t been dwelling on diversity this week!  The weather is nice and I’m walking more. I’ve planted garlic and pulled out the seed catalogs. I’ve gotten a couple of coloring books themed on ‘harmony’ and I’m still watching ‘Gilmore Girls’. It’s an amazing life when your passion becomes your work, but it’s really important to have outlets that clear your mind and de-stress your being. There’s so much I do to promote diversity that I enjoy! I think I’ve mentioned that we’re about to finalize the We the People Summer Reading List?

I’ve been working on the Digital Public Library’s Open eBooks, a new initiative and e-reader app that will make thousands of popular, top-selling eBooks available to children in need for free. The project worked hard to identify books that represented marginalized children and reacted to how few there really are. I love that this project incorporates technology, building on other literacies for young people. Yes, this is a double edge sword that cuts away those with no Internet in their homes, but thank goodness for libraries who do provide this access. The initiative was announced by Michelle Obama.

Open eBooks is not a federal program; it was created by a breakthrough coalition of literacy, library, publishing, and technology organizations who worked together over the past year to make the initiative possible. This team – Digital Public Library of America, First Book, and The New York Public Library with content support from digital books distributor Baker & Taylor – created the app, curated the eBook collection, and developed a system for distribution and use. They received support for development of technology critical to the app from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and content contributions from ten major publishers — including today’s big announcement that National Geographic will include all its age-appropriate content in the app.

For more information, or to sign up, visit Please share this link with parents and teachers so that we can get and keep our children reading.

And that’s what it’s all about: getting and keeping our children reading.

This week, I’ll be reviewing Tanita Davis’ new book, visiting my dentist and going to see a local production of Nathan Louis Jackson’s “Broke-ology”.

Here’s to a week filled with doing our best. I really like this quote from Vernon Wall, “May the work I’ve done speak for me.”







Guest Post: Enslavement of Native Peoples

The following post is contributed to my series on enslavement from Debbie Reese. Debbie is  tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico. She is an advocate for diversity in children’s literate and has been blogging for almost ten years at American Indians in Children’s Literature. Here, she discusses the earliest enslavement in the United States.

reeseI’m pleased to contribute this blog post to Edi Campbell. For the month of February, she focused her blog posts on books about slavery. My contribution is a look at the enslavement of Native peoples.

My guess is that a good many of you read “enslavement of Native peoples” and did a double take. You did that with good reason. The enslavement of Native peoples is a part of history that is not taught in school. Some of you might be squinting your eyes and thinking back to something you read… You might then say “Oh, yeah, Squanto! Wasn’t there something about him being kidnapped and sold into slavery?”

The answer to that question is yes. That is why he knew English and could talk to the pilgrims in 1620 when the Mayflower landed. Four years earlier, he was one of over 20 men who were kidnapped by Thomas Hunt (he was captain of one of the ships in John Smith’s expedition) and taken to Malaga, Spain where they were sold.  He managed to get back, but the reason he knew English is usually not included in children’s books about him or about the First Thanksgiving. He was one of thousands of Native peoples who were enslaved.

In recent years, there’s been an increase in attention to Indigenous enslavement. Here’s a few examples.

Allan Gallay, in his 2003 book, The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South 1620-1717, wrote that from 1670 to 1720, more Indigenous people were shipped out of Charleston South Carolina, than Africans who were imported to be enslaved.

In 2014, Jace Weaver’s The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making of the Modern World, 1000-1927, was published. In it, he writes that 600,000 Native people were taken aboard ships to Europe, to be sold into slavery.

In her 2015 book, Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and Slavery, Margaret Ellen Newell writes about the absence of this history, saying that we know more about the relatively few Euro-American captives among the Indians than we do about the thousands of Native Americans who served European masters in New England. She’s talking about white women like Miriam Willard in Calico Captive by Elizabeth George Speare, and Mary Jemison in Lois Lenski’s Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison.

Let’s hope that people who write for children and young adults are reading about the enslavement of Native peoples, and that we’ll see books for children that bring this dark history out of the shadows. Let’s also hope that people who write stories about that “First Thanksgiving” give us more information about Squanto, too.

Follow Debbie on Twitter @debreese

February Book Deals



Tomo Explores the World by author-illustrator Trevor Lai, the founder of UP Studios, a leading animation studio in China, has a three-book deal. The picture book series is about a young inventor who, with the help of his best friend and dog, sets out to complete the unfinished tasks in his great grandfather’s Adventure Journal. Publication is slated for October 2016.

 The Seekers, a picture book by Hari & Deepti, using cut-paper illustrations, about members of a village that set out an adventure when their water dries up, and a second untitled picture book. Publication is scheduled for spring 2018.

They Both Die at the End a second untitled YA novel by Adam Silvera. Set in a near-future New York City where a service alerts people on the day they will die, the novel follows teens Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio, who meet using the Last Friend app and are faced with the challenge of living a lifetime on their End Day. Publication is slated for fall 2017.

My Grandpa’s Chair by debut author-illustrator Jiyeon Pak. It the story of a girl’s efforts to help her grandfather find a new chair, and help him overcome grief at the same time. Publication is planned for fall 2017.

Along the Indigo by Elise Chapman. In the story, a young woman is under pressure to start working at a brothel; desperate for a way out, she forges a connection with a boy whose tragic past is more connected with her own than either of them realizes. Publication is planned for fall 2017.

Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea, a memoir that portrays contemporary North Korea to a young audience, written by Sungju Lee and Susan Elizabeth McClelland. The memoir chronicles Lee’s adolescence, after he was forced at age 12 to live on the streets and fend for himself, surviving by thieving, fighting, begging, and stealing rides on cargo trains. Publication is scheduled for September 2016.

Pilu of the Woods, written and illustrated by Mai Nguyen. The book centers on the friendship between a girl with anger issues, Willow, and a tree spirit, Pilu. Publication is slated for 2018. Oni Press

by YA debut author Ibi Zoboi’s. Infused with magical realism and the author’s own experiences, this coming-of-age story follows a Haitian immigrant girl thrust into the world of Detroit’s west side; as Fabiola struggles to get her mother out of a U.S. detention center she’s forced to confront the true meaning of family and home, even as she falls in love. Publication is slated for winter 2017. Alloy Entertainment

 Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor, written by Patricia Valdez and illustrated by Felicita Sala, a picture book biography of the pioneering female scientist in the early 1900s who loved reptiles as a child and grew up to design the Reptile House at the London Zoo. Publication is slated for spring 2018. Knopf

Want by author Cindy Pon. A near-future thriller set in Taipei, the novel follows a group of teens living on the fringes of a highly divided society that only works for the elite. They risk everything when they decide to take matters into their own hands and save a pollution-choked Taiwan. Publication is planned for summer 2017. Simon Pulse

Warcross by Marie Lu about two teen bounty hunters hired by a young billionaire to catch a hacker in the world’s most popular virtual reality video game. Publication is scheduled for 2017. Putnam

Langston Hughes’s That Is My Dream!, to be illustrated by Daniel Miyares, a picture book version of Hughes’s poem “Dream Variation.” Publication is scheduled for fall 2017. Random House/Schwartz & Wade

The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand  by Karuna Riazi toZareen Jaffery.  Victoria Marini at Cake Literary (the outfit founded by Tiny Pretty Things authors Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton) brokered the deal. The novel, dubbed by the agent as a “Middle Eastern magical Jumanji,” tells the story of a Bangladeshi-American girl and her two friends, who must defeat a diabolical board game or be trapped in it forever. The book will appear on Salaam Reads’s inaugural list in 2017.

Shadow Life written by Hiromi Goto and illustrated by Celine Loup. Sally Hardingat the Cooke Agency handled the deal for Goto, while Loup was represented by Meredith Kaffel Simonoff at DeFiore & Company. The publisher said the book follows a woman named Kumiko who escapes her senior living facility while being followed by “Death.” The book is set for 2018. First Second Books

book review: Building A New Land

+-+21585399_140title: Building a New Land: African Americans in Colonial America
authors: James Haskins and Kathleen Benson
illustrator: James Ransome
date: Amistad/Harper Collins 2001
middle grade non-fiction

Building a New Land is a nonfiction book about the development of enslavement in the original colonies. The book begins with the history of Africans in the Americas and details how Africans lost more and more of their rights and freedoms. This progression is important for young people not only so that they can better understand US history, but so that they can view enslaved Africans as humans, not as ‘slaves’ who suddenly became part of US History.

The book focuses on the historical developments related to the enslavement of Africans and omits details related to Europeans and Native Americans who were also part of this history. While do often learn the European background of Whites in the book, we rarely know the tribal affiliations of Native Americans who are mentioned.

Haskins and Benson present the differences in ways Africans lost their freedoms in the different colonies over time, an important aspect of enslavement that is often overlooked. It also makes mention of some of the ways Africans contributed to the developing land. The fact-based book is not overburdened with detail, allowing it to present a vast amount of information. A selected bibliography is offered. This is the third book in the African beginning series.

book review: Jefferson’s Sons

+-+300743731_70Title: Jefferson’s Sons
Author: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
date: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2011
main characters: Maddy Heming, Beverly Heming, Peter Fossett
middle grade historical fiction

Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is the fictionalized story that begs the question, what does it mean when the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence is your father and also your slave master? It came across my path most recently when I saw it on one of the lists of recommended books about slavery. The inside flap states the books is told in three voices, but it’s not. It works to focus on three different characters, Maddy and Beverly who are both Jefferson’s sons and Peter, who is not. The book lacks an overarching storyline other than the fact that it’s about Jefferson’s sons.

While the author seemed to care about her characters, it felt that she held them at a distance, that she was uncertain about developing emotions or actions on their behalf. August Wilson wrote that “We have different aesthetics. Someone who does not share the specifics of a culture remains an outsider, no matter how astute a student or how well-meaning their intentions.” The story begins with Beverly pining for his father, seemingly wanting his approval. But, his mother keeps telling him that his father’s identity is a secret and he must not say anything. And again, he mentions ‘papa’ and again she tells him not to say anything. We learn that his mother is Sally Hemmings, the enslaved woman who had six children by Thomas Jefferson. Although everyone on the plantation seems to know this ‘secret’, there is very little public conversation about it.

Before continuing, I have to mention the difficultly I image in writing historical fiction, in wanting to reflect the sentiments of the time and of not overlaying contemporary thoughts and habits. How does one do that and still keep young adults interested in works of fiction? The following quote would be an example of revisioning the past.

“You ma’am me one more time, I won’t give you breakfast. Didn’t I tell you I got a brother your age?” (p. 249) ‘Don’t call me ma’am’ is a very modern sentiment. ‘Ma’m’ then was a title of respect, not age.

Jefferson promised Sally that her children would be free. Still the lighter skin children plan to run away and pass for white while Beverly, who is darker has to wait for his father to free him. Could Jefferson be trusted to do this? There is much of talk in the book about Maddy being too dark to pass for White and about his sibling’s plans to run away and be White. Don’t show, do!! There would have been so much more power in letting the characters play out the differential treatment in being light skin and dark skinned, the types of interactions they would and wouldn’t have had, but you have to have seen or felt this intraracial discrimination to write about it. One of the few places where this preferential treatment was enacted rather than talked about was in this scene where clothing is distributed.

“So, why not give real stockings to everybody?”

“It’s cheaper to weave fabric than to knit it.” Mama said.

“Woven stockings cost less.”

“How much less?”

“I don’t know,” Mama said. “It’s not my business.”

How many stockings is it?” Maddy persisted. “For how many people?”

Mama pursed her lips. “about thirty up here on the mountaintop,” she said. “Maybe a bit more. Say one hundred and sixty working on the farms. That would count the children.”

“And everybody gets three pairs of stockings, twice a year-“

Well, no,” Mama said. “Field hands get one pair, twice a year,”

“That’s not enough,” Maddy said. “They’d wear out.”

“Not if nobody can stand to wear them,” said Mama. “I can’t stay here taking with you, Maddy. I’ve got work to do.”

“But Mama—“ Maddy said.

Mama turned in the doorway. “Yes?”

The field hands do the important work. They grow the crops that make the money.”

“I know,” Mama said.

“So why don’t they get the good clothes and we get the ugly ones?”

Mama sighed. “You know the answer to that. Don’t ask questions when you already know the answer.” (p. 189)

On page 248, there’s a conversation between Maddy and his Uncle John about light skin, dark skin, and passing for White. Further down the page, Beverly asks his uncle “What happens if you don’t follow the rules?” These conversations are for the sake of White readers who need to have these things explained. Black children observe their neighbors and kinfolk and learn dangerous behavior. When your body is at stake, you learn quickly. Yet, the conversation develops.

Uncle John looked serious. “You mean the rules white people make for black people?” Beverly nodded. “Ill tell you,” Uncle John said. “A black man who doesn’t follow the rules is a dangerous man in a white person’s eyes. A black man who doesn’t follow the rules doesn’t live very long.”

And then, we have to bring Native Americans into this meandering story.

James was gentle too. “Here’s what we’ll do,” James said, “we’ll both get free, and we’ll travel together. We’ll go out west like Lewis and Clark. We’ll go see the Indians.” (p. 169)

We’ll go see the Indians. wtf?

For the most part, the history presented in Bradley’s books Is correct. She took leisure with a few details, or understood them different. I think the point of historical fiction is to create situations and dialog that weave together historic events. Bradley had much evidence available to her, Jefferson was a fastidious record keeping. Much can be told about life at Monticello from the record, but it sometimes requires inferring based upon raw data. Jefferson wasn’t much into journaling or letter writing, wasn’t one to clearly define his position on most things. I’d say that to me, he comes off as morally ambiguous. Being able to define his character would explain so much about life at Monticello and his connection to his sons but, this is difficult to do from what he has been left behind. We do know that Jefferson viewed slaves “as legitimate a subject of property as horses and cattle” and the slaves themselves were “incapable as children in taking care of themselves.” This from a man with 25 house slaves and over 100 field slaves.

What is so unusual about Monticello was that so many people who lived there were related. Betty Hemings was the concubine of Martha Heming’s father. Together, they had 7 children, one of whom was Sally, making Sally and Jefferson’s wife step-sisters. She had another 7 children by an enslaved black man. When Martha Hemings’ father passed away, Betty and her children became the Jefferson’s property. The darker children came one year and the mulattos came the next. The light skin slaves were the house slaves and darker slaves worked in the fields and factories owned by Jefferson. The color lines seems quite obvious to those forced into it and ripe for contention between these groups.

Jefferson employed overseers who were well known for their brutality and some historians worked to remove these details from Jefferson’s legacy. One of the factories that Jefferson maintained was the nail shop, where boys 10-16years old were employed on the plantation. The young ones who wouldn’t show up on icy mornings or for not keeping up were beaten. This fact was deleted from records from 1950-2005. Up to the age of 10, young children served as nurses. I don’t think they had as much free time as it appeared in the book.

It seems there was a time when Jefferson really believed Blacks should be free. To us, this is a no brainer, but to a man of his time the issue would have been as much an economic question as it was a moral one. (This is America, after all.) And, it was on the basis of economics that Jefferson realized America needed enslaved people. A significant contribution Jefferson made was to monetize enslavement. He was the first to realize that by owning enslaved people, he could profie 4% each year on the birth of a black child. He also pioneered the industrialization and diversification of slavery. Moving away from tobacco farming to wheat farming, Jefferson realized specialized tasks were necessary. Young boys were observed when they began working in the nails shop to see what jobs best suited them.

Monticello was certainly a complexity. We’ve got the author of the Declaration of Independence, the president of the United States sleeping with one of his slaves. He never frees her. Should this read as a loving relationship on her part? We’ve got enslaved Blacks and free Whites with the same bloodlines, Blacks who can pass for White and the whole question of enslavement and freedom here, where Thomas Jefferson lives. I’m surprised the musical wasn’t “Jefferson”.

The book falls short not only in being limited in appeal to White readers, but also in the message it delivers them about Blacks. Issues such as light skin/dark skin, which are HUGE among people of color, falls flat while freedom becomes equated with being White. The characters are provided no ability to overcome their situation except through escape. They have no dignity when they do little more than sew and produce nails for their master. These enslaved people were the ones who literally and figuratively built Monticello: they’re net worth was used to finance the construction and they were the ones who did everything from casting bricks and nails to molding the fine woodwork. But we only get the sense that, as Jefferson stated they are as “incapable as children in taking care of themselves.” I could go on. I could go through the scene where Beverly talks about the difference between Whites and Blacks or where Maddy and Peter discuss the Declaration of Independence, or the fact that there was enslavement in France until 1848, but I’m done. I’m not recommending this one. It doesn’t belong on anyone’s list of recommend readings about slavery enslavement.