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Compelling prize winner highlights Britain’s role in the slave trade

Summertime brings one of our favourite book prizes, the Little Rebel’s Children’s Book Award. Honouring storytelling that challenges stereotypes and discrimination, the shortlist is often more radical and interesting than other contemporary prizes. Freedom by Catherine Johnson takes the 2019 award, and what an important book it proves to be, relating the story of Nat, a young Jamaican slave, and his journey to an England that he believes will set him free. Interwoven with real events and characters, it’s a compelling and enlightening read.

Jamaica, 1783. Working in the gardens of a plantation house, Nat knows he’s one of the more fortunate slaves. He doesn’t have to endure the backbreaking task of cutting sugar cane in the fields, unlike his poor Mamma and baby sister, Martha. Determined not to be broken by his master’s indifferent cruelties, Nat nurses a fire in his belly. ‘Toiling and sweating’ for white folk will not be the sum of his life.

When he is chosen to accompany his owners on a trip to London, Nat begins to muse on the possibility of escape. Hasn’t it been said that England is a country so close to heaven that no men are enslaved? He resolves to win freedom in this land of plenty, make his fortune and return to Jamaica for his beloved family. The possibility of England not being a shining beacon of morality doesn’t even occur to his hopeful heart.

This impressive book combines gripping fiction with shocking historical truth. Did you know that sharks used to follow slave ships? Sometimes to dine on slaves thrown overboard by their ruthless captors, sometimes, heartbreakingly because slaves would throw themselves in.

Think when they are dead they will float up into the sky and fly back to Africa.

An essential history lesson for our kids as well as a darn fine read.

Freedom by Catherine Johnson is published by Scholastic, 160 pages.

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