Skip to main content
Join us for the Annual Follett Lecture on May 2, 2022 at 6 p.m. This lecture will be presented online.
The Shadow Book: Reading Slavery, Fugitivity, and Freedom in Children’s Books and Media
Delivered by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, 2020-2022 Follett Chair
May 2, 2022
6:00–7:00 p.m.
Free; registration required. Please register below.

"The Shadow Book" will focus on the cultural politics inherent in representing slavery in contemporary children's books and media from the Civil Rights Movement to the Movement for Black Lives and the recent 1619 Project. Recent children’s books about slavery will be presented, and responses from reviewers, parents, community members, students, and the editor, author and illustrator will be analyzed. The talk will conclude with the implications for libraries, schools, and the future.

How do young readers respond to difficult stories about the past? Many topics frequently found in historical children’s and young adult literature—antebellum slavery, de jure segregation in the Jim Crow South, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands, to name just a few—are set during the bleakest chapters of American history. This is not surprising. One of the key functions of children’s literature is to explain and interpret national histories—histories that involve invasion, conquest, enslavement, and assimilation. However, interpreting these events can prove difficult in light of the other key functions of children’s literature: to transmit values, to convey a sense of nostalgia and wonder, to spark young imaginations, and to provide an expected happily ever after at the end of each story. Historical children’s stories are often framed within a metanarrative, or master story, of progress, triumph, and optimism. Although young people are learning some valuable information about the past, ultimately, they are learning only a single story—that of the unassailable American Dream.

Countering these stories are the shadow book that visionary poet and Schomburg Center director Kevin Young imagines as “a book that we don’t have, but know of, a book that may haunt the very book we have in our hands.” The tales told by darkness, by the shadows, by those at the margins of our country are never completely erased or removed, simply hidden in plain sight. For it is not only history that has been irrevocably inscribed by its victors, but also memory and imagination itself. When it comes to African American children’s books and media, many of these stories are retellings of history from Black perspectives, while others are Black fantastic, Afrofuturistic imaginative flights of fancy built from mythology and folklore—from Virginia Hamilton's The People Could Fly to Patricia McKissack’s The Dark-Thirty—providing new scope for the storied imagination.

Return to Follett Lecture page