“There are no trains in this story!” This was my youngest son’s reaction when I brought home a stack of books about the Underground Railroad. My boys quickly learned, however, that while this railroad had no trains or tracks, it may have been the most important and powerful railroad our country has ever seen.
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This collection of books will help both younger and older readers understand the cruelty of slavery and the high cost of freedom for those trying to escape. While this time in United States history is shameful, it is important that we study it so that we aren’t doomed to repeat it. I hope you find education and inspiration within these pages.
16 Books About the Underground Railroad
A Picture Book of Harriet Tubman by David A. Adler
Adler has created another fantastic picture book about the life of an American hero. This volume follows Harriet Tubman from her childhood as a slave in Maryland to her escape on the Underground Railroad, and then to her return to the South to help others escape. It also follows her life during and after the Civil War, where she continued to serve others and work for justice.
All of Adler’s biographies are excellent, and I recommend them for readers ages 5 and up.
Follow the Drinking Gourd by Bernadine Connelly
This story follows one family’s escape from slavery along the Underground Railroad, and is based on the classic American folk song of the same name. It illustrates how those escaping to freedom would follow natural signs like constellations to find their way to the north.
I recommend this book for ages 5 and up. There’s also an excellent DVD of this story, read by Morgan Freeman.
Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine
Henry has always dreamed of freedom, from the time he was taken away from his family until adulthood, when his wife and children are sold to another slave owner. Henry comes up with a unique idea to become free; he will mail himself to the North! His difficult journey in a shipping crate proves to be worth the reward.
This book is based on a true story, and I recommend reading it with kids ages 4 and up.
Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson
A young woman named Clara works as a slave and a seamstress, but she dreams of freedom., both for herself and her family. One day, she hears two other slaves talking about something called the Underground Railroad, and she realizes that she can use her skills as a seamstress to help lead others to freedom. She assembles scraps of fabric into a quilt that can also be used as a map to trace the way to the North, along the Underground Railroad.
I recommend sharing this book with children ages 3 and up.
Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole
This haunting picture book has no words, only eerily beautiful illustrations that show the serious nature of this time. A young girl finds an escaped slave hiding in her barn, and she is faced with an important decision. Does she alert someone to this unexpected intruder hiding in the shadows? Or does she follow her heart and her sense of compassion?
This is a truly moving book, but younger kids might need help interpreting what is happening in the story. I recommend sharing it with kids ages 5 and up.
Barefoot: Escape on the Underground Railroad by Pamela Duncan Edwards
A Barefoot (escaped slave) must move through the woods at night, in the hopes of quietly escaping the Heavy Boots who are seeking after them. The Barefoot must pay attention to the cues the forest is giving him, and the animals seem to help him find his way. Readers follow along as he hides in the forest and the swamp, eventually making his way to his destination.
This intriguing picture book has a very unique point of view, and I recommend sharing it with children ages 5 and up.
Almost to Freedom by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Lindy loves her doll Sally, and they do everything together. Wherever Lindy goes, Sally comes, too. Sally even comes along as Lindy and her family bravely make their escape from slavery on the Underground Railroad. But along the way, Sally is left behind. She’s sad until she realizes that she can be a comfort to another young girl making her way to freedom.
This story is told from the point of view of Sally the doll, and is an excellent choice for reading with kids ages 5 and up.
The Birdman by Troon Harrison
Alexander Ross was best known as an ornithologist — aka someone who studies birds. But reading the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin uncovered another passion for Ross: helping slaves find freedom. His deep knowledge of nature also helped him to know the best ways of escape for enslaved people who were fleeing to Canada. Ross felt that if birds had the freedom to fly where they wished, that all humans should have that same freedom as well. So he devoted himself to helping black men and women find freedom and a new life.
This beautiful picture book is a captivating look at a little known hero, and it’s perfect for reading with kids ages 5 and up.
Blacksmith’s Song by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk
A young boy watches his Pa pound out hot metal as a blacksmith, and he knows that his father is doing so much more than making tools. His father may be a slave, but the rhythm he pounds out on his anvil sends a message to those seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad. One day, when Pa becomes sick, the young boy has to step up to the anvil and take over the important work.
This picture book is perfect for kids ages 6 and up.
Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome
If you only know her as Harriet Tubman, you don’t know the whole story. She was more than a former slave. She was a spy, a suffragette, a general, a nurse, and so much more. This beautiful picture books delves into the many roles she played and names she took over the years of her epic life.
I recommend sharing this unique biography with readers ages 6 and up.
Chapter Books and Early Readers
Emma’s Escape by Sharon Shavers Gayle
Emma takes a visit to the Anacostia Museum for African American History, but before you know it, she has traveled back in time and must follow the Underground Railroad to freedom. Will she be able to make it out of slavery without getting caught?
This early reader is packed with information, and is perfect for kids reading at a second grade level or above.
What Was the Underground Railroad? by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Once again, the WhoHQ series has put out a great non-fiction book about an important topic. This book features interesting facts, lots of illustrations, maps, and profiles of those who made the journey. There’s also an insert full of photographs from the time period, so kids can make the connection that slavery affected real people who lived real lives.
This compelling chapter book is best suited for kids ages 8 and up.
Eliza’s Freedom Road: An Underground Railroad Diary by Jerdine Nolen
When Eliza’s mother is sold away to another family, all Eliza has to remember her by is her quilt and the stories she told. When Eliza’s mistress falls ill, Eliza begins to hear talk of being sold, and she knows her time is come. She follows the words of her mother and the farmhand Joe, and soon she is being led on the Underground Railroad by a kind woman named Harriet.
This fictional diary of a 12 year-old house slave in Virginia is a great choice for kids reading at a fourth grade level or higher.
Dear Austin: Letters From the Underground Railroad by Elvira Woodruff
Levi has befriended a boy named Jupiter who is the son of a former slave. They enjoy playing and exploring the Pennsylvania countryside together. When Jupiter’s sister is kidnapped by a slave trader, Levi and Jupiter hatch a plan to save her. Naive Levi very quickly realizes how desperate the plight of the slaves is, and through his letters, he shares what he sees with his brother, Austin.
This historical fiction story, told in letters, is best for kids reading at a third grade level or higher.
Stealing Freedom by Elisa Carbone
Anna Maria Weems was born into slavery, and it is the only life she knows. Her one joy in her life is her family; being able to be with them is what makes life bearable.
But the life of a slave often meant separation from family, and one day Anna ends up without the people she loved. Consumed by grief, she takes the only action that seems to make sense: escape. Anna disguises herself as a boy and sets out to find both freedom and her family.
This book is inspired by a true story, and it’s best for readers ages 11 and older.
Brady by Jean Fritz
Brady is known for having a big mouth, but he’s never had to keep a secret like this before — the secret of the Underground Railroad stop near his family’s home. Brady is faced with a tough decision; does he tell what he knows, or does he help and protect the slaves escaping for their freedom?
This book is best for kids reading at a third grade level or higher.