Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History

Book review by
Kyle Jackson, Common Sense Media
Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History Book Poster Image
Beautifully illustrated bio of abolition's greatest hero.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History contains a straightforward, well-explained overview of the basics of the American slave system and the lead-up to the Civil War tailored to young kids. It also lays out basic biographical information about Douglass. Introduces famous abolitionist John Brown and his unsuccessful raid at Harper's Ferry. A timeline is included at the back.

Positive Messages

"His voice, born in the soft tones of the slave population, truly became a lion's roar." Learning to read can change your life. Stand up for what you believe. All people deserve to live free. Fight for equal justice under the law. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Frederick Douglass, as an orator, writer, and activist, was an influential figure in American history. His leadership and courage contributed greatly to the abolition and emancipation movements, and his advocacy for women's rights demonstrated his commitment to social justice for all people. Abolitionists in New Bedford, Massachusetts helped Douglass when he escaped slavery and began to live his life as a free man. 

Violence & Scariness

Reference to a "slave breaker" who was known "making slaves less likely to stand up for themselves." He would beat male and female slaves "until they gave up the struggle to be more than slaves." The man beat Douglass, but one day Douglass fought back and after a half hour the man gave up and never tried to beat Douglass again. Reference to John Browns raid at Harper's Ferry (which Douglass declined to participate in), shows men with rifles raised. Douglass urged the Union to enlist black soldiers in the Civil War and urged black men to fight for the Union.


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History, by the late great award-winning children's book author Walter Dean Myers and illustrated by Coretta Scott King (Illustrator) Book Award winner Floyd Cooper, is a moving, informative picture book biography of an exceptional American and one of the towering figures of abolitionism. It shows Douglass' path from childhood slavery in the South, where he taught himself to read, to escaping to the North, becoming a free man, a great orator and abolition advocate, and eventually a member of the government. It's an excellent introduction for younger readers to the complicated history of slavery, emancipation, and the Civil War. 

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What's the story?

FREDERICK DOUGLASS: THE LION WHO WROTE HISTORY, tells the inspirational true story of the social justice advocate's journey from boyhood slavery (he was born in Maryland in 1818) to a long career as an influential orator, activist, and author. Beginning with Douglass' courageous decision as a boy to teach himself to read in spite of laws against such education for enslaved people, Meyers traces Douglass' difficult but fulfilling career as an advocate not only for African-Americans, but also for women and other oppressed groups. His unique ability to describe his plight and liberation through writing allowed him to connect to a huge audience of white Americans, particularly in the North, where the abolitionist cause was gaining steam. Ultimately, his celebrity afforded him access to the halls of power, where he was able to confer with and advise such figures as President Abraham Lincoln about the progress of abolition and emancipation. As shown in a timeline at the back, he later held various government posts. 

Is it any good?

Walter Dean Meyers' succinct but powerful writing, paired with Floyd Cooper's gorgeous, evocative illustrations, makes an effective, emotional introduction to a dark chapter in American history. Carefully emphasizing Douglass' bravery and resilience, Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History does well to show how his unique character and situation led to him becoming an important voice of resistance against the morally corrupt slave system and the destructive oppression of women. Cooper's striking portraits and haunting landscapes bring the 19th century to life, and Douglass' timely message of justice for all Americans is as important now as ever.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History traces he the path of an escaperd slave who became a great national leader and member of the U.S. government. What other stories do you know of people who rose up from terrible circumstances to do great things and make history? 

  • Why were slave owners scared of their enslaved people learning how to read and write?

  • As the book shows, Frederick was asked to write the story of his life when he was just 27. It was one of the first accounts written by an enslaved person about what it was like to be enslaved. Why was it so important for people to hear and read Frederick's story in his own words? 

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