Festive & Informative Juneteenth Children’s Books to Help You Celebrate

Posted on June 7, 2023 at 6:00 am

By Melissa Rhoades

Juneteenth became a U.S. federal holiday in 2021. I admit I first heard of the commemorative day just a couple years before, but some American communities have been celebrating Juneteenth for 157 years.

This year, I decided to learn more about the holiday celebration. It’s been enjoyable to discover its history and its typically joyous, family-friendly observances.

Here, I share some of what I’ve learned, along with some suggestions for new Juneteenth children’s books that the whole family can enjoy—whether you’ve observed the holiday your whole life or are just beginning to celebrate it now.

A Brief History

Juneteenth commemorates the end of chattel slavery across the entire United States.

The holiday’s name comes from combining the words “June” and “nineteenth” because June 19 was the day in 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with about two-thousand Union troops to announce the end of the Civil War.

The war had ended over two months earlier on April 9, 1865. However, Texas was the westernmost slave state in the Confederacy. Plus, Galveston is an island. So, it took over two months after the war’s end—and over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation—for the enslaved people of Galveston to learn that they were free. It took even longer for some enslaved Texans to learn of their liberation.

Nevertheless, the anniversary of General Granger’s announcement has become the official day to celebrate when everyone in the United States was at liberty to control their own lives.

Also known as Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, and America’s Second Independence Day, the anniversary of liberation has been celebrated in some Texas communities since 1866. During the Reconstruction Era, the holiday slowly expanded beyond its home state. The Great Migration further spread Juneteenth to communities across the country.

21st-Century Celebrations

Texas became the first state to adopt Juneteenth as a legal holiday in 1980. By 2000, Florida, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Delaware also commemorated the day. By 2019, 47 states and the District of Columbia recognized the holiday in some way before it became a federal holiday in 2021.

Today, celebrations vary from place to place and range from intimate family affairs to large municipal festivals. Kirsti Jewel describes Juneteenth activities in her book What is Juneteenth?:

Baseball games, fishing, and sometimes rodeos are common Juneteenth activities. At night, fireworks may explode in the sky. Does this make Juneteenth seem like July 4 – America’s Independence Day? … Well, the two holidays are very similar. The biggest difference is that Juneteenth celebrates the day when everyone living in America became legally free.

For poet Sojourner Kincaid Rolle, author of the picture book Free at Last: A Juneteenth Poem, the holiday celebrates “endurance, perseverance, resilience, and the joy of being alive.”

Celebrations often include red-colored food and drink plus displays of the Juneteenth flag.

If you’re planning to host a celebration this year, browse Nicole A. Taylor’s 2022 cookbook Watermelon & Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations. It’s full of mouth-watering recipes.

Children’s Books to Share

To help families celebrate, the library has added several new Juneteenth children’s books to our collection. Some offer a great introduction to the holiday for adults, too. Here are eight of my favorites, listed with the publishers’ age recommendations from youngest to oldest.

The picture book All Good in the Hood (2023), written by Dwayne Reed (“America’s Favorite Rapping Teacher”) and illustrated by Gladys Jose, showcases Juneteenth as the backdrop to a story about two brothers. As their family heads to a 21st-century celebration in the park, timid and shy little brother gets repeatedly reassured by big brother: “Don’t worry, Lil’ Bro, it’s all good in the hood!” Rhyming text with great read-aloud sounds make the story fun to share. Plus, there’s a cute twist at the end. An author’s note discusses the cultural importance of Juneteenth. This book is recommended for ages 4–8 (preschool to grade 3).

Free at Last: A Juneteenth Poem (2022), written by Sojourner Kincaid Rolle and illustrated by Alex Bostic, imagines various ways different enslaved people would have responded in 1865 to the news that they were finally free. Flowing between rhyme, alliteration, and other word play, the poem is full of inviting sounds to read out loud. Illustrations on every page reflect the resilience and pride within the words. The author’s note at the end explains Rolle’s personal relationship with the holiday as well as the history of the poem which goes back to 2004. The publisher recommends this title for ages 4–8 (preschool to grade 3).

The picture book titled simply Juneteenth (2023), written by Van G. Garrett and illustrated by Reginald C. Adams, focuses on a contemporary family’s road trip to Galveston, Texas. I especially enjoy the son’s happiness at seeing how, unlike 4th of July or Labor Day festivities, “there are so many people who look like us” at the Juneteenth celebration. This theme is repeated a few times with language that’s fun to read aloud. Adams, the book’s illustrator, was key in the creation of Galveston’s Juneteenth-themed mural titled Absolute Equality. The book is recommended for ages 4–8 (preschool to grade 3).

The picture book The Night Before Freedom: A Juneteenth Story (2023), written by Glenda Armand and illustrated by Corey Barksdale, immediately caught my ear because Armand uses the same meter as Clement C. Moore’s classic poem The Night Before Christmas. Delightfully vibrant and dreamlike imagery depicts a family gathering around Grandma to hear her tell Great-Great Grandma’s tale of being liberated from slavery as a girl. Focusing on the positives, the girl learns that the rainbows and gossamer wings of her childhood fantasies were metaphors for real opportunities opened to her. Recommended for ages 4–8 (preschool to grade 3).

The biography Opal Lee and What It Means to be Free (2022), written by Alice Faye Duncan and illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo, portrays Juneteenth advocate Opal Lee telling stories to children at a picnic. With a fluid combination of concrete details and lyrical language, the children hear general history plus tales from Lee’s personal life as a child during the Jim Crow Era. Between dark moments, Lee reminds us “Freedom, hope, and JOY DIVINE! Juneteenth means it’s FREEDOM TIME!” The biography’s afterward offers a timeline, chronological bio, and recipe for red punch. The publisher recommends this title for ages 4–8 (preschool to grade 3).

Juneteenth: A First Look (2023), by Katie Peters, offers a brief, large-type overview of the holiday. What’s great about this book is its interactive questions that adults can use to start conversations about the subject matter with their young ones. A preface offers an “Educator Toolbox” to guide adults. The simple sentences in the body of the book also include a couple questions to keep kids engaged, and the end includes social-emotional questions adults can use to continue the conversation. The text is accompanied by vintage and contemporary photographs. This book is recommended for ages 5–8 (kindergarten to grade 3).

The history book The Juneteenth Story: Celebrating the End of Slavery in the United States (2022), written by Alliah L. Agostini and illustrated by Sawyer Cloud, begins with Independence Day on July 4, 1776. Next, it provides an age-appropriate history of slavery in the U.S. After introducing the first Juneteenth, the book focuses on the history of the holiday and discusses various ways individuals and families have always chosen to commemorate universal emancipation. With colorful illustrations on every page, this book offers a great overall introduction to the holiday. The publisher recommends it for ages 6–9 (grades 1–4).

The history book What is Juneteenth? (2022), written by Kirsti Jewel and illustrated by Manuel Gutierrez, is part of the popular Who HQ book series. This chronological history of the holiday also introduces related events in an age-appropriate way, including slavery in North America, the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Covid-19 pandemic. It also introduces readers to individuals who worked hard and succeeded at getting the holiday officially recognized. The end of the book supplies a timeline, bibliography, and photo album. The publisher recommends this book for ages 8–12 (grades 3–7).

Here are a few more books about Juneteenth to check out:

Want more reading options? Browse our full selection of kids, teens, and adult materials related to Juneteenth, including the critically acclaimed 2020 film Miss Juneteenth, written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples.

2023 Spokane-Area Events

The Inland Northwest Juneteenth Coalition (INWJC) has hosted Juneteenth events in Spokane since 2011. This year’s INWJC events include:

  • The 2023 Community Pillar Awards to “acknowledge and celebrate those who help uplift the African American community in Spokane”
  • The INWJC Father’s Day Event to “praise fathers, male mentors, and father figures who play an important role in their children’s lives or the children they mentor or help raise… especially African American men because of the negative stigmas placed on them regarding fatherhood”

The Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture (MAC) will continuously screen the 30-minute film Juneteenth: A Celebration of Resistance during open hours on Sunday, June 18 (the MAC is closed on Monday, June 19).

If you know of additional public celebrations, please post them in the comments below.

And remember, however you decide to celebrate this year, “Freedom, hope, and JOY DIVINE! Juneteenth means it’s FREEDOM TIME!”

Melissa Rhoades

Melissa Rhoades fulfilled a childhood dream when she started her first library position in 2016. As a Public Services Specialist at Spokane County Library District, she presents weekly storytimes, hosts programs, works on the 3D printing team, writes on the blog team, assists with collection maintenance, and tends the reference desk, among other tasks. Off the clock, she enjoys exploring the arts and the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

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