Turn a page toward freedom with these Juneteenth reads

From children’s books to historical nonfiction, unlock the power of Black history and storytelling this Juneteenth.

Whether you’re celebrating this Juneteenth outside at block parties or practicing well-deserved Black restfulness, this weekend, we’re honoring our Black ancestors’ freedom.

Although the White House recognized Juneteenth as a federal holiday in 2021, this moment in African-American history was largely excluded from most school curriculums for over a century. As threats against the teaching of critical race theory increase across the nation and the list of banned books by Black authors continues to grow longer, it is fundamental that we not only preserve but celebrate Black history. Telling our true stories is our best defense. 

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Set your mind and pages free this Juneteenth Booklist (Photo: Ton.l)

“Books allow you to see the world through the eyes of others,” Black British writer Malorie Blackman once told The Guardian. “Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.”

So whether you’re seeking to deepen your understanding of this pivotal moment or simply looking to immerse yourself in compelling narratives, we invite you to explore the pages of thought-provoking memoirs, animated children’s books, gripping novels, and revelatory nonfiction works that weave together the triumphs, struggles and indefatigable spirit of the African American experience. We’ve compiled some recommended reads in our gallery below.

Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free: The True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth – Alice Faye Duncan (Thomas Nelson, 2022)

This children’s book recounts the story of Black activist Opal Lee. After learning most Americans did not share her knowledge of Juneteenth, Lee dreamed of seeing everyone celebrate the holiday she so loved. Telling the true story of “the grandmother of Juneteenth,” this book is bound to inspire your little ones to see their dreams come true.

The First Ladies – Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray (Berkley 2023)

Telling the story of “The First Lady of Struggle,” Mary McLeod Bethune and her friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, this novel dives into an alliance that redefined civil rights and racial allyship. An incredible bond that has never been thoroughly explored in fiction or nonfiction, Benedict and Murray reveal this singular friendship’s impact on history. 

Black People Breathe – Zee Clarke (Ten Speed Press, 2023)

In this mindfulness guide for racial healing, Clarke shares exercises, breathwork practices, and meditative tools centered on healing from and surviving racial trauma. In addition to guiding readers, Clarke shares her own experiences so that whether you are coping with police brutality, racial profiling, microaggressions, or even imposter syndrome, you can find solace within the pages.

What Is Juneteenth? – Kirsti Jewel and Who HQ (Penguin Workshop, 2022)

Written for middle school readers, “What is Juneteenth?” reflects on the importance of the newly recognized federal holiday and addresses the United States’ complex and tragic history of slavery and racial discrimination. 

Justice Rising:12 Amazing Black Women in the Civil Rights Movement – Katheryn Russell-Brown (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2023)

This children’s book highlights the stories of twelve women who were pivotal to the Civil Rights Movement but have frequently been left out of most history books and class discussions.

Can We Please Give the Police Department to the Grandmothers? – Junauda Petrus (Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2023)

In this children’s book, Petrus imagines a radically joyous world in which police aren’t in charge of public safety but rather community-based safety and mutual aid. With grandmothers at the center of this optimistic vision, the book allows families to explore conversations about police and social responsibility in a digestible way.

Charleston: Race, Water, and the Coming Storm – Susan Crawford (Pegasus Books, 2023)

Written by a former special assistant to President Obama, this critical analysis chronicles the history of Charleston, South Carolina, from protests to hurricanes. Threading science, history, and the generational stories of Black Charlestonians, “Charleston: Race, Water, and the Coming Storm” gives readers a new perspective on the historic city. 

A Right Worthy Woman – Ruth P. Watson (Atria Books, 2023)

Take a journey to Virginia’s Black Wall Street in this novel based on the true story of Maggie Lena Walker. As the daughter of a formerly enslaved woman, Walker made a name for herself as the first Black woman to establish and preside over a bank in the United States. 

In Our Shoes: On Being a Young Black Woman in Not-So “Post-Racial” America – Brianna Holt (Plume, 2023)

Blending personal memoir with astute cultural analysis, “In Our Shoes” artfully employs the lens of pop culture and author Brianna Holt’s firsthand encounters to deconstruct the pervasive stereotypes and preconceived notions young Black women face in America.

A is for Aretha – Leslie Kwan (Kokila, 2023)

Highlighting Black women musicians who have revolutionized the industry, this ABC book allows young readers to learn not only their alphabet but also the women who have forever impacted the culture. 

A Flag for Juneteenth – Kim Taylor (Neal Porter Books, 2023)

“A Flag for Juneteenth” shares the story behind the celebration of the first Juneteenth through the lens of a young girl, making it digestible for readers ages 4-8. According to the publisher, each illustration in the book is embroidered, adding a remarkable tactile experience for young readers. 

Going Down Home with Daddy – Kelly Starling Lyons (Peachtree, 2019)

Set at a little boy’s family reunion, this children’s book showcases a much-treasured celebration of Black history and culture while emphasizing the enduring importance of family. 

Symbols of Freedom: Slavery and Resistance Before the Civil War – Matthew J. Clavin (NYU Press, 2023)

This historical nonfiction work explores the surprising story of how American symbols inspired enslaved people during their fight for true freedom. 

The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church – Rachel L. Swarns (Random House, 2023)

“The 272” goes beyond the surface of religion as we know it, not only revealing the profound tale of how slavery propelled the expansion of the American Catholic Church but illuminating the lives of the enslaved individuals whose coerced toil played an instrumental role in constructing the nation’s largest religious denomination.

Benjamin Banneker and Us: Eleven Generations of an American Family – Rachel Jamison Webster (Henry Holt and Co., 2023)

A family reunion sparks a genealogical journey as relatives reconnect, transcending the boundaries of color, culture, and time and igniting profound conversations, and illuminating the significance of their shared history.

Build A House – Rhiannon Giddens (Candlewick, 2022)

Grammy Award-winning artist and 2023 Pulitzer Prize winner Giddens tells the tale of a resilient, enslaved family who uses music to sustain their spirits. Giddens discusses the history behind this book and more on theGrio’s “Writing Black” podcast

Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque – Ed Mitchell, Ryan Mitchell, and Zella Palmer (Ecco, 2023)

This cookbook tells the story of the Mitchell family through recipes passed down for generations. Rooted in Wilson, North Carolina, the Mitchells’ cookbook pays homage to the rich culture of barbeque in the Black rural south.

Haniyah Philogene is a multimedia storyteller and Lifestyle reporter covering all things culture. With a passion for digital media, she goes above and beyond to find new ways to tell and share stories.

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