Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free: The True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth

by Alice Faye Duncan (Author) Keturah A Bobo (Illustrator)

Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free: The True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth
Reading Level: 2nd − 3rd Grade

The true story of Black activist Opal Lee and her vision of Juneteenth as a holiday for everyone celebrates Black joy and inspires children to see their dreams blossom. Growing up in Texas, Opal knew the history of Juneteenth, but she soon discovered that many Americans had never heard of the holiday that represents the nation's creed of freedom for all.

Every year, Opal looked forward to the Juneteenth picnic--a drumming, dancing, delicious party. She knew from Granddaddy Zak's stories that Juneteenth celebrated the day the freedom news of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation finally sailed into Texas in 1865--over two years after the president had declared it! But Opal didn't always see freedom in her Texas town. Then one Juneteenth day when Opal was twelve years old, an angry crowd burned down her brand-new home. This wasn't freedom at all. She had to do something! Opal Lee spent the rest of her life speaking up for equality and unity. She became a teacher, a charity worker, and a community leader. At the age of 89, she walked from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C., in an effort to gain national recognition for Juneteenth.

Through the story of Opal Lee's determination and persistence, children ages 4 to 8 will learn:

  • all people are created equal
  • the power of bravery and using your voice for change
  • the history of Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, and what it means today
  • no one is free unless everyone is free
  • fighting for a dream is worth every difficulty

Featuring the illustrations of New York Times bestselling illustrator Keturah A. Bobo (I am Enough), Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free celebrates the life and legacy of a modern-day Black leader while sharing a message of hope, unity, joy, and strength.

Publishers Weekly

Duncan introduces Opal Lee (b. 1926), a Black activist and storyteller known as the "Grandmother of Juneteenth" because of her work to make Juneteenth a nationally recognized holiday, including--per back matter--her cross-country U.S. walk to collect petition signatures. The picture book's framing features Lee telling stories "of yesteryear" to her great-grandson Buddy and a group of children with varying skin tones. Lee first relays the history of slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation, then tells about Juneteenth when she was a child in the Jim Crow era, when "an angry mob with flaming sticks burned my family's brand-new house." Throughout, multiple refrains remind readers to "Remember my words for safekeeping. Remember what I say. Juneteenth is bigger than Texas, singing, or dancing bands. Juneteenth is freedom rising. And freedom is for everyone." Though there are some outmoded word choices (including slave as a noun), Bobo's art focuses on expressive figures, portrayed against largely simple backgrounds, in this paean to Juneteenth and oral tradition. Back matter includes more about Lee, a recipe for Juneteenth "Red Punch" Strawberry Lemonade, a Juneteenth timeline, and sources. Ages 4-8. (Jan.)

Copyright 2021 Publishers Weekly, LLC Used with permission.
Lexile Measure
Guided Reading Level
Publication date
January 20, 2022

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