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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 1: Freedom in Congo Square vs. Freedom Over Me



Freedom in Congo Square
by Carole Boston Weatherford
illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Little Bee
Freedom Over Me
by Ashley Bryan
Simon & Schuster

I took several writing workshops in college. A student would share a story they wrote with the rest of the class and we all critiqued it. One of my professors liked us to start by saying what the story was about. It was a helpful place to start because sometimes what the reader understood was different from what the writer tried to express. Then we talked about the structure of the story; whether it was in first person, third person, what the conflict was, how the story began, how it ended, if it was linear, etc. Only after that would we talk about what we liked, what we didn’t like and what the author could have done differently. I have found this way of critiquing to be very helpful. I will try to follow a similar format in this match of Battle of the Kids’ Books.

Freedom in Congo Square

What is it about?

The story is about the awful hardships slaves in New Orleans were forced to endure. But also about how they found solace in the fact that on Sunday afternoons slaves and frees were allowed to gather in Congo Square. There they could sell goods, exchange information, play African music and dance. For half a day out of each week they could feel as if they were free.

How is it structured?

Freedom in Congo Square is a 32 page picture book. It is written in verse by Carole Boston Weatherford. More than half of the book is about the slaves counting down the days to Congo square. A little less than half is about the joy they felt once Sunday afternoon arrived.

The text in the story is sparse and it rhymes. There are only between one and three sentences per spread. There is additional information in the book that explains more fully things that are mentioned in the story. The book begins with a foreword by historian Freddi Williams Evans about the history of Congo Square. It ends with a glossary and an author’s note.

The illustrations in the book are by R. Gregory Christie. The images are full color paintings that cover the spreads entirely. Christie uses a lot of oranges and yellows. His style is reminiscent of naif art. His figures are made with simple and raw shapes.

What I liked.

The story has a sense of expectation that keeps the reader engaged. When I started reading the book I wanted to get to Congo Square too. When the reader finally gets there we get to witness the slaves’ joy and we feel like we are part of the celebration.

Although the author uses a small amount of words she is able to convey a lot of emotions and information. “Mondays, there were hogs to slop, mules to train, and logs to chop. Slavery was no ways fair. Six more days to Congo Square.” The rhyming works very well and every word feels carefully thought out.

The foreword and back matter supplement the story well. Christie’s illustrations are very powerful. They are full of rhythm and they are visceral. His art works extremely well with the text.

Freedom Over Me

What is it about?

Ashley Bryan imagines the lives and dreams of eleven slaves that were going to be auctioned off in 1828. The names of the slaves come from an actual document he acquired which shows their prices alongside that of cattle, hogs and a hand mill.

How is it structured?

Freedom Over Me is 48 pages long. The story is written in verse. It is written from each of the eleven slaves’s perspective. There are two spreads dedicated to each slave. Each spread has an illustration on one page and text on the other. The first spread for each character is about who that person was; what their job at the estate was, and their relation to some of the other slaves that lived there. The illustration next to the text is a portrait. The second spread for each character is a about the person’s dreams. The illustration next to it is a scene in which those hopes are shown.

The verses in the book do not rhyme. There are about six small paragraphs per page. The illustrations are rendered in pen, ink and watercolor. The portraits in the book also include collaged pieces of historical deeds and newspaper clips related to slavery. The end papers of the book show enlarged details from a deed also. There is an author’s note at the end of the book and also a reproduction and a transcript of the slave auction document that the author used for inspiration.

What I liked.

I like how through out the book we learn about each character’s inner life and that we see how the different characters are connected to one another. We learn for instance that Peggy is a cook, but also that she longs to be a healer. She is in love with Stephen, the carpenter, and they have adopted John, a sixteen year old slave boy as if he were their own.

The author-illustrator gives dignity to his characters. Each character speaks of the pride they feel in their skills, regardless of being slaves. The author emphasizes the character’s African roots. They often speak of their African villages, traditions and refer to themselves by their African names. Peggy is Mariama, “Gift of God.”

The illustrations in the book are striking. Especially the portraits. I like the use of the collaged deeds. It is very powerful and appropriate to the book’s subject.

The Judgement

This is a tough call. I like both books a lot. They deal with a similar subject, namely slavery, and they do so in a thoughtful and powerful way. I find both books to be well crafted, powerful and beautiful.

But, since I have to choose one I am choosing Freedom in Congo Square. Sometimes less is more. I have learned that to do something that is short and concise is often harder then doing something that is long. I am not sure how many revisions the author and illustrator went through, but to arrive at something that seems simple and effortless often involves many, many drafts. Freedom in Congo Square feels fresh yet every word and picture in the book feels purposeful and carefully chosen.


 Duncan Tonatiuh

And the battle begins… (cue dramatic music)
Mr. Tonatiuh’s completely right that less is often more – particularly for picture books. For young readers especially, a straightforward book can go over better than a more complex one. Both Freedom in Congo Square and Freedom Over Me use a vibrant palate of colors and poetic language to portray complex concepts, but Freedom Over Me seems slightly more accessible. Is that a reason to pick it, though? What’s the age group these books are geared to, and is a picture book that deals with slavery ever going to be “accessible?” I don’t know, but Weatherford’s and Bryan’s works of art deserve a place in the conversation about race, history, and slavery in elementary schools. Perhaps, with colorful illustrations and moving poetry, they can help begin the conversation at an earlier age. Adults should appreciate them, too: they illuminate specific places and moments that get forgotten all too easily. History told in these kaleidoscopic images might be worth a thousand words.

– Kid Commentator RGN

I find that, especially for younger children, a picture is worth a thousand words (excuse the cliché). As someone with a younger sister (who, coincidentally, told me about Freedom in Congo Square), I’ve seen too many picture books that have artwork that is only meant to supplement the text, or vice versa. This is where Freedom in Congo Square really stood out for me; neither illustrations nor words upstaged the other. The almost abstract illustrations were beautifully rendered. (Are they minimalist? I don’t know what to call them, I just know that they are stunning.) Both books’ stylized drawings added so much to their respective texts that I had to reread both of them looking just at the illustrations. Ultimately, I agree with Mr. Tonatiuh’s decision, if only for the beauty of the text-image pairing. But don’t both have a place in libraries, in classrooms, in bedtime stories? A parent reads books like these to a child, and both gain empathy and knowledge. But my hat goes off to you, Mr. Tonatiuh, I doubt I could really choose between such educational and exquisite works like these.

– Kid Commentator NS

Battle Commander (gravatar)



  1. Other Meredith says

    I really liked both books, but I also would have chosen Freedom in Congo Square. Different reason though. I wanted to know more about Ashley Bryan’s process in Freedom Over Me. What kind of research did he do? Any time I read historical fiction, I want to know the history, not just the fiction.

  2. I thought this pairing was really interesting since they are on very similar subjects. I too would have chosen Freedom in Congo Square even though I thought both were beautifully told and illustrated. My one frustration with Freedom Over Me was the fact that the document Ashley Bryan used to produce his story only had 10 slaves listed and he created an additional slave for his narrative. There is no explanation given for this and it has bothered me ever since I read it.

  3. Paige Ysteboe says

    Although I liked Freedom Over Me, it left me wanting to know more — what happened at the auction? I know that information might not be available, but I still wanted it.

    I loved Freedom in Congo Square. New Orleans holds a special place in my heart, and I was very happy to learn a new (to me) story about it. I especially liked that there was both a forward and an author’s note at the end so that I could learn more about Congo Square.

  4. Freedom in Congo Square would have been my choice, too, by light years.

    I liked Freedom Over Me, but the poems felt same-y after awhile and there wasn’t much tone to the writing – something Congo achieved greatly through its rhythm and its careful, evocative word choice.

    Great choice, Mr. Tonatiuh!

  5. Battle Commander Battle Commander says

    In our Fantasy Battle of the Kids’ Books, the faculty, many of them language arts and history teachers in middle school, picked Freedom Over Me as the winner, overwhelmingly so. They found the book powerful and moving, even though they also all acknowledged the artistic achievement by Christy and the beauty of the poetry in Freedom in Congo Square.

  6. I loved the format of Mr. Tonatiuh’s critique here. Pretty simple and straightforward. What is the book about? How is it structured? What I liked/disliked? Nicely done. And, good choice!

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