When Amina Luqman-Dawson received a call from the Coretta Scott King Book Awards jury to inform her that her middle-grade historical novel Freewater (Little, Brown) had won the 2022 award, she was in her Arlington, Va., kitchen. “I had no idea they called you!” she told PW. “When they said, ‘This is the Coretta Scott King committee,’ it hit me all at once. I didn’t quite hear the end of the sentence. I was shocked and overwhelmed. Freewater had made it to this amazing place that I only dared dream of. I felt extreme gratitude and contentment.”

When she received another call a little later, this time from the Newbery committee, to notify her that Freewater had also been feted with American children’s literature’s oldest and most prestigious accolade, “I dropped to my knees for the second time that day,” she said. “I started crying. The whole world is now going to know about Freewater and experience this story.”

Inspired by formerly enslaved people who escaped to the Great Dismal Swamp, the sprawling wetland in Virginia and North Carolina, during the 19th century, Freewater follows enslaved Black siblings 12-year-old Homer and seven-year-old Ada after their flight from a plantation to the fictional community of Freewater, a sanctuary for escaped slaves. PW’s starred review called it a “vividly written, wholly accessible novel of enslavement and resistance.”

Freewater explores the concept of self-emancipation through the lesser-known histories of those who escaped into the forests and swamps in the South. “It’s about African Americans finding ways to live free and clandestine lives—that is the definition of resistance, empowerment, and ownership in the middle of unbelievably difficult circumstances,” Luqman-Dawson said. “I was also inspired [to write it] when I had my son,”—Zach, now 13. “My husband and I were trying to find ways to share the history of enslavement in this country, to share his ancestral history with him. I wanted to reach him, and then reach tons of other kids.”

Freewater is Luqman-Dawson’s fiction debut; her op-eds on race and popular culture have appeared in the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle, and she is the author of the pictorial history book Images of America: African Americans of Petersburg (Arcadia). She credits the publication of Freewater to, among many others, her mentor Kathi Appelt and the We Need Diverse Books mentorship program. “[Kathi and the program] helped me get me to a place that ushered me into getting an agent, and then from there getting a publisher, and then a fabulous editor—Alex Hightower,” she said.

Luqman-Dawson stressed the importance of real conversations around the history of enslavement in the U.S., and the need to “find new, creative, innovative ways to have that discussion, because it touches on so much of our present-day lives,” she said. “We are in a climate where forces are actively trying to have us shy away from, forget, or downplay the impact of this history. It’s all the more needed that we have ways of celebrating, understanding, and connecting with it. I’m so pleased and so grateful that Freewater arrives at this moment.”

Luqman-Dawson is reveling in her joy, while working on her next novel. “It’s a baby of a book that will hopefully grow into something fabulous,” she said. “It takes a character out of Freewater and follows that character on their own journey, and introduces another piece of amazing history in the process.”