cover image Freedom's Gifts

Freedom's Gifts

Valerie Wilson Wesley. Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, $16 (32pp) ISBN 978-0-689-80269-0

A small Texan town's Juneteenth celebration in 1943 is the setting for Wesley's (Where Do I Go from Here) resonant picture book, which offers a penetrating perspective on the degree of liberation the holiday commemorated in the pre--civil rights South. African American cousins June and Lillie listen intently to their elderly great-great-aunt Marshall's articulate first-hand account of the evil days of slavery (""We were born grown back then--at least we felt it"") and of her memories of June 19, 1865, the day that she and all the other slaves in Texas learned, a full two and a half years after Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, that they were free. ""Are we free now?"" asks June, who has just tried to explain to a disgruntled Lillie, visiting from the North, why a nearby drinking fountain displays a ""Whites Only"" sign. Aunt Marshall's wise, poignantly ironic words concede that she is ""as free as I'll be before I'll die. But not as free as you'll be someday."" Intentionally hazy, Wilson's (The Day Gogo Went to Vote) textured pastel art is composed of an unusually diverse configuration of fine and broad strokes. These create some intriguing background patterns, including a recurrent concentric design resembling the whorls of a fingerprint. The result is sophisticated and distinctive--a statement that is also true of Wesley's forthright treatment of a sensitive and important subject. Ages 8-up. (Apr.)