From her first novel, Freewater, Amina Luqman-Dawson wants young readers to come away with a sense of connection to those who experienced slavery.
“The underlying thing I hope that people take is a sense of connection, and a sense of humanity, to those people that survived the most inhumane system,” says the Fairlington author, who is the first woman to win both the coveted John Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Book Award, for this novel. “That, to me, is more important than anything. … Being in that space with these characters, and that sense of connection, I think, will last a lifetime.”
Set in the 19th century, Freewater tells the story of 12-year-old Homer and 7-year-old Ada, Black siblings who are enslaved and escape a plantation without their mother. Their journey takes them to Freewater, a fictional community deep in a swamp.
The book, geared toward kids who are 8 to 12 years old, takes readers on multiple adventures and vividly describes the realities of slavery and of reaching liberation through the eyes of children, helping readers to understand the concepts of self-worth, family, and freedom.
“I have to admit that I think a lot of this, a lot of [how I wrote] the children, came from the space of my childhood and … kids that inspired me in my own childhood,” says Luqman-Dawson, who grew up in California and came up with the concept for the book 20 years ago. Then “life happened,” she says, and she put Freewater aside for more than a decade. She picked it back up after her son’s birth.
“I wanted something for him that could introduce him to the topic of enslavement in a way that I felt could meet him on his level, where he was with his interests, and that inspired me to delve back into it,” she says.
Her son, now 14, is past the age of reading with his parents, but Luqman-Dawson, a former substitute teacher and substitute librarian for Alexandria City Public Schools, envisions younger kids and parents doing just that with Freewater. From there, she says children can start conversations.
“I think that seeing where the child’s interest goes is always a good idea. I think it’s meant to be treated as a story that lets your mind sort of soar and go. I don’t necessarily think it needs, as you’re reading it, always to be a history lesson, per se. I want kids to enjoy this work because that sense of enjoyment will last and allow them to then open up their own curiosity in their own minds,” she says.
Feature image courtesy Zachariah Dawson
This story originally ran in our June issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to Northern Virginia Magazine.