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

Author: Alice Faye Duncan

Illustrator: Keturah A. Bobo

Publisher & Year: Tommy Nelson, 2022

Intended Age: 4-8 years

Topic/Themes: biography, Juneteenth remembrance/celebration, family, freedom

Opening Line: “Happy Junetenth Jamboree! Come and join the fun!” 

Synopsis: Opal Lee and What It Meant to Be Free begins with an outdoor Juneteenth celebration filled with delicious food, music, and dancing. “Tell us a Juneteenth story!” the children ask Opal. Opal shares the freedom stories that her Uncle Zack shared with her when she was a child: how the men had to take care of fields they could not own; how women had to prepare foods they could not eat, and children had to clean schoolhouses where they could not learn. How, even though Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, declaring that “persons held as slaves…shall be…forever free,” her family and community continued to be enslaved until Union army troops rode into Galveston, Texas and shared the news, with the ensuing celebration marking the first Juneteenth celebration. But, even after freedom has been declared, Opal’s family home is burned down and since the police decline to investigate, Opal and her family are forced to move away. These challenges galvinized Opal and she devoted her life to honoring freedom. She worked for years to have Juneteenth declared a national holiday. Opal Lee beside him, President Biden signed legislation declaring Juneteenth a national holiday on Juneteenth in 2021.

What I like about this book: I like lyrical stories and there is so much beauty in this text and Keturah A. Bobo’s vivid illustrations. I love the musicality and the rhythm when I read it aloud. I also like books that teach me something and I learned much about Juneteenth that I hadn’t known. I also like books that make historical events come alive, and the framing of this story, with stories being passed down by people who directly experienced the horrors of enslavement is so powerful, as is the sense of resilience and joy that Opal Lee embodies and shares with us, through Alice Faye Duncan’s remarkable book. 

Activities/Resources

Teacher’s Guide/Lesson Plans: Alice Faye Duncan’s website has excellent plans here.

Multimedia Presentation:

Hear the Book Read Aloud by Author, Alice Faye Duncan here.

Writing: 

Reading: Before reading, have students look at the title and cover illustration and predict what the story will be about. Have students brainstorm what the word “freedom” means to them. Students will benefit from background information on slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation. (Some resources are found here.)

After reading, have student do a 7-minute quickwrite reading response to what they feel, think and have questions about after hearing the story. Share and discuss. Research people who are fighting for freedom today. Brainstorm ways students can help and select an action.

Book Celebration: Invite families to listen to the book read aloud and then share student-created narratives and research. Serve Juneteenth “Red Punch” Strawberry Lemonade (recipe in the back of the book)

Art: Using the cover artwork as inspiration, draw a silhouette of a grandparent with the student’s profile inside. I also loved these “filled” silhouettes here, maybe a student’s silhouette can be filled with an image of freedom.

This review is part of PPBF (Perfect Picture Book Friday) where bloggers share great picture books. Organized and curated by author Susanna Leonard Hill, she keeps an ever-growing list of Perfect Picture Books. #PPBF

Reflections on this Book:

I think it is important that books about our history should be freely available and are so needed. No one should be afraid of the truth. We will all be stronger if we face the horrors of our past and use them to inform the steps we must all take together to create a better tomorrow for all people.

This is one of the books that I needed to have when I was growing up and when my children were growing up. It is a story that we all need to hear. “No one is free until everyone is free.” How clearly those words from the book resonate today as we witness the fight for freedom in Ukraine. I have long taken my freedom for granted but this book and the past two years have helped me see that freedom is fragile and I must continuously ask, “What can I do to support the fight for freedom?” It is right that we can teach our children to ask this same question.

Thanks for stopping by? Have you read this book? Do you recommend a picture book? Let me know in the comments.

3 Responses

  1. I agree with you about books sharing stories we all need to hear and know about! Opal’s story stirs many emotions, but it is one I would have loved to have read when I was growing up — it is our history. That’s why I enjoy reading/reviewing children’s books because I am learning so much too. Lovely review and I love your activities.

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