12 Years a Slave is not only headed for a bigger audience after being named Oscar's best picture, it's headed into the classroom as well. Last week, the National School Boards Association recommended that the movie become part of the curriculum at U.S. public high schools.
Younger students can also learn from the story of Solomon Northup, a free African American who was kidnapped into slavery in 1841 and freed in 1853. In 2012, Judith and Dennis Fradin wrote Stolen Into Slavery: The True Story of Solomon Northup, Free Black Man, adapted from Northup's autobiography and aimed at children in the middle grades. The book was published by National Geographic Books.
We interviewed Judith Fradin about why she and her husband (who passed away last year) felt it was important to introduce children to this brutal episode in American history.
Why did you think Solomon Northup's story would make a good book for kids?
This isn't the first time that Dennis has told Solomon Northup's story for kids. The first time was when he wrote Bound for the North Star: True Stories of Fugitive Slaves some time ago. Solomon Northup's story was quite gripping, as were all the stories in that book.
Dennis and I both taught in all-African-American public schools in Chicago for quite a few years—he for 12 years, me for 4. He taught second grade and I taught high school. We each found different ways to bring African-American topics to our students. As a high school teacher, I had them read original stories, plays, biographies, novels by African-American authors. Dennis, in order to entertain his young students who got very antsy at the end of day, would tell them stories about famous African Americans. He went to the Northwestern University library to find these stories and found two shelves of books written by escaped slaves. The light went on in his writer's head: He wanted to write a [children's] book about slave escapes, one of which was Solomon Northup's.
Fast-forward five or six years [after the book was published in 2000]: All of sudden there was a flurry of children's books based on the stories in his book. We decided if other people are going to do this, why not us? Thus was born Stolen Into Slavery, as well as The Price of Freedom, our 2013 book, a picture book about a slave rescue.
Were there things you left out of Stolen Into Slavery because you didn't think they were appropriate for young readers?
We didn't leave much out. There was one review by a kid who said—and this was a 12-year-old boy—that he thought the book was scary. The events in the book are scary. We weren't trying to soft-pedal at all.
You include Northup's account, which isn't in the movie, of the 10-year-old son of Edwin Epps, the cruel plantation owner, "playing the overseer" and lashing slaves with a whip.
We're always focusing on what might interest our child reader. In Price of Freedom [which is also based on a true story], slave hunters come to town looking for a particular slave, and it was a 12-year-old boy who, for a $20 coin, helped them recapture the slave.
Patsey, a young woman, received the most abuse on Epps's plantation. And you explain why: "Epps wanted Patsey to have sex with him, but she refused." That's pretty direct for a kids' book.
I think that's the way to do it. You have to somehow put forth his motivation to explain the brutality. It's important that kids understand that if you brutalize people, you are going to create brutes.
Given the serious subject matter, how old do you think kids should be before they read Stolen Into Slavery?
That should be up to parents, I think. It really depends on the individual child, or the teacher and how the teacher uses it. I think this is the kind of material, the kind of American history, that kids should be very conversant with. As far as I'm concerned this nation was built on the backs of black laborers, on slaves. Their history has faded into "oh, this is embarrassing; we don't want to talk about it" for too long. It's definitely time for that to stop. These are human stories. They're history. They're real.
This interview has been edited and condensed.