Slavery is right up there with some of the worst events in modern history. Our minds have a hard time believing that humans can be so cruel to one another. Because of that, we are drawn to it. We want to understand. These books capture the history in a way middle grade kids will enjoy. The most jarring are Copper Sun and Nightjohn. The most readable is Unbound, written in verse.
Copper Sun by Sharon Draper
Amari is an African girl, captured in Africa, shackled, mistreated, held like cattle, raped and sold into slavery in America. Polly is an indentured servant on the same plantation, charged with “civilizing” Amari. When the mistress gives birth to a black baby, they are caught up in the turmoil and sent to auction. Middle grade caution: rape and murder, though not graphic.
Day of Tears by Julius Lester
No matter how “good” a master was to his slaves, auctions were inevitable. Families were often split apart to get a better price. Emma is the slave servant to the master’s daughter. When she accompanies the daughter to the auction, the master ends up reluctantly selling her in a private deal. She doesn’t get a chance to say goodbye to her mother.
Unbound by Ann E. Burg
Grace has been selected to be a kitchen servant. Her mother tells her to keep her eyes down and thoughts to herself. Grace tries, but sometimes her thoughts take flight. The mistress doesn’t like Grace. Since they need the kitchen help, she convinces the master to sell her family instead. Grace has been taught to fear the auction, so she convinces her family to run. Written in verse.
The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis
Little Charlie is a poor, white, sharecropper’s son. After his father dies, the plantation overseer, Cap’n Buck, shows up claiming his father owes a debt. Charlie agrees to go with him to help capture slaves who have escaped to Detroit and Canada. Charlie sees Cap’n Buck’s cruelty and decides he wants no part of it.
Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
This is the story of Sally Hemming’s children, all fathered by Thomas Jefferson. Sally herself was a biracial slave. Her children were 7/8 white. Jefferson promises to free them when they turn 21. The story centers around the children coming to terms with their status, the public awareness of their paternity, and Martha Jefferson’s (daughter) disapproval.
Chains by Laura Halse Anderson (trilogy)
Isabel is a slave girl who was promised freedom upon her owner’s death. Instead she is sold to a loyalist couple in New York City who dole out severe punishments for disobedience. She befriends a boy who is a slave to a patriot. She risks her life to bring food and information to the slave boy while he is imprisoned for treason.
Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen
Nightjohn is a free slave who returns to the south to teach slaves to read. He is captured and sold back into slavery. He befriends young Sarney and teaches her the alphabet. When the master catches her writing in the dirt, Sarney’s mammy and Nightjohn experience slave punishment at its worst. Middle grade caution: intense cruelty toward slaves.
Currents by Jane Petrlik Smolik
Three lives cross paths across the Atlantic Ocean when Bones, a slave girl in Virginia, sets a bottle adrift with a note and carved peach pit. It is found by an English girl who replaces the pit carving with a necklace she hopes to keep out of her stepmother’s greedy hands. The bottle travels back to America where it is discovered by an Irish immigrant girl in Boston.
Running out of Night by Sharon Lovejoy
Lark is a poor, white girl, mistreated by her father. When a runaway slave shows up on her porch, Lark decides to run away with her. After struggles with slave catchers in the woods, they end up at a Quaker hideout. They are eventually discovered and she, along with runaway slaves, are hauled away, to be returned to their owners. Lark’s quick thinking saves everyone.