2023 Newbery Award Winner Book Review:
Note: It is not the purpose of this review to draw conclusions for the reader but rather to focus on literary elements and topics of importance for the Christian audience.
Freewater by Amina Luqman-Dawson is the winner of the 2023 ALA Newbery Medal.1 The story also won the 2023 Coretta Scott King Award given to “recognize outstanding books for young adults and children by African American authors and illustrators that reflect the African American experience.”2 The author is most known for her op-eds, magazine articles, travel writing, and book reviews. After the birth of her son, she states the reason for her interest and transition into writing for the middle-grade reader: “Through my son, I was able to return to my most precious memories of reading children’s literature. I began thinking of stories I’d wanted to write for our son and maybe for other children in the world.”3 Freewater is her debut middle-grade novel, and Luqman-Dawson tells the story of runaway slaves and their search for freedom in the pre-Civil War American South.
Danger lurks in the tangled vines and tall, thin trees, but Homer and his sister, Ada, run deep into the swamp despite the risks. They had to escape the Southerland Plantation. When Mama had gone back to rescue Anna, Homer’s friend, she left them strict instructions. If Homer heard the dogs before she returned, Mama made him promise they would run and leave her behind. After surviving a raging river and barely keeping ahead of the hunting dogs, Homer finally extricates himself from a sinkhole when he looks down to see a poisonous snake raring back to strike his leg. Just before it attacks, a tall man appears from the trees overhead: Suleman. Ada affectionately refers to him as the flying man because of his ability to scale and jump from trees seemingly with magic. After disposing of the snake, he leads Homer and Ada through a complicated maze of swamp trees, secret doors, and sky bridges to a hidden community of both escaped and freed slaves: Freewater. Homer and Ada are welcomed with open arms, and it is the first real home they’ve ever known. As they try to decide when and how to go back for Mama and Anna, Homer uncovers a plot that threatens the very existence of Freewater. Homer, Ada, and their new friends must work together to rescue Mama and ensure the safety of their new home.
This story is more character-driven than plot-driven. Told from multiple viewpoints, each chapter follows an individual character. The author uses each character to illustrate different experiences of those in and around a plantation in the antebellum South. While Homer and Ada’s story is the central one, the reader also meets Sanzi, one of the first free-born residents of Freewater. She has only ever known the swamp, but she is full of ambitions and dreams to one day be like her idol, Suleman. She is sassy and headstrong—almost always in some sort of trouble. Another character, Billy, is a young boy with a stutter who is afraid of almost everything. The trauma of his escape from the plantation still haunts him, and the reader watches him gain confidence and bravery. Anna, still a slave on the Southerland Plantation, is Homer’s friend, and life has left her bitter and resourceful. All on her own, she hatches a plan to escape the plantation. Nora, the youngest daughter of the plantation owner, recognizes the horrors of slavery from the sidelines. She watches how her family treats the slaves, and she’s disgusted. She vows that she will not be like her family, and she tries to help Rose, Homer and Ada’s mama, escape.
Since this story is primarily character-driven, there are some weaknesses to the overall reading experience. First, the pace of the story is inconsistent. Both the beginning and the ending were engaging with most of the action occurring there. However, in the middle of the story the author focused on the characters to emphasize the difference experiences they had, but the pace slowed significantly. The point of view has the intended effect of developing the characters and what their individual lives looked like, but the plot did suffer somewhat. Second, due to the multiple points of view, the reader may have difficulty keeping track of all the characters, especially younger or inexperienced readers.
There are plenty of topics in the story that would merit discussion with a young reader. The primary and most obvious one is slavery. The author does an excellent job of portraying the slaves’ experiences accurately, but at an age-appropriate level. She does not hide the horrors of it for a more literal reader, but a more advanced reader that is able to understand implications would be able to better grasp the situations. Luqman-Dawson uses a layered approach that balances graphic imagery and subtext without compromising or altering the reality of slavery at the time. This story was not comfortable—as is appropriate for books on this topic. The simplicity of her writing style provides many thought-provoking illustrations of the reality of slavery for readers young and old. Other potential topics that could warrant discussion are disobedience to parents, anger, hate, revenge, as well as how to stand up alone for what is right. Since this story is not written from a biblical worldview and these situations are complicated, they would serve as ideal teaching moments. There is also a part of Billy’s story in which he indicates that he has feelings for Juna. It is portrayed innocently, and it is one of the ways the reader sees Billy gain confidence over the course of the story.
One of the most interesting aspects of this story is the history behind it. In the author’s note Luqman-Dawson writes, “Enslaved women, men, and children found a multitude of ways big and small to resist and escape bondage. We usually learn about them escaping North or to Canada. Lesser known are those who found refuge deep in the swamps and forests of the American South and even began secret communities. . . . Although Freewater is from my imagination, it’s inspired by the Great Dismal Swamp and the enslaved souls who found refuge and freedom within its confines.”4 This history provides a unique setting in terms of other fictional accounts of this same time period. Another enjoyable aspect of the story is the way Luqman-Dawson weaves the historical aspects and the story together. Her word choices and style are both readable and enjoyable, and there are beautiful descriptive passages of the swamp and other settings. Finally, the inner workings of Freewater and the technical aspects of how they remain hidden along with building skybridges provide a fascinating STEM-related aspect to the story.
Overall, this story’s value resides in the classroom or other guided reading environments. Though the story itself has an enticing premise, students may have difficulty finishing and comprehending this book independently. However, the point of view, the subject matter, and the pace of the plot lends itself perfectly to the educational environment.
4 Luqman-Dawson, Amina. Freewater. (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2022), 399.