Fairlington author Amina Luqman-Dawson has received two awards for her novel, “Freewater.”
The middle-grade book about a secret community of formerly enslaved people living in the wilderness received both the John Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Book Award from the American Library Association. The awards were announced yesterday (Monday).
“I think I cried, and then I screamed, and then I cried,” Luqman-Dawson tells ARLnow. “It was pretty bad for people on the phone. I was honored — absolutely completely honored and overjoyed… I can’t even put it into words and that’s what I do for a living.”
Luqman-Dawson is the first Black woman to win both the John Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award, per a press release from Arlington Public Library. The Newbery Medal is to the author of “the most distinguished contributions to American literature for children,” while the Coretta Scott King Book Award recognizes an African American author and illustrator of “outstanding books for children and young adults,” the release said.
“We are beyond happy for Amina Luqman-Dawson and her extraordinary achievement. ‘Freewater’ is an important story and deserves to be read by every middle school student,” said Library Director Diane Kresh in a statement. “On the eve of Black History Month, congratulations to our talented Arlington author. Thank you for sharing your voice.”
“Freewater” is a work of historical fiction is based on the history of Maroons: African Americans who escaped slavery and formed their own settlements in the wilderness, in seemingly uninhabitable locations like the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.
“Maroons… found ways to live free, clandestine lives in the wilderness,” Luqman-Dawson said. “[The book] uses fiction to connect with those who were enslaved in the past — people who’ve found ways to resist and live lives full of complexity, joy and hardship in the midst of extraordinarily difficult times.”
“We have a history of avoiding, feeling awkward about and fearful of the history of enslavement,” she continued. “‘Freewater’ is a tool, a means — in a sort of thrilling, adventurous, fun, joyful way — to connect with this history. Hopefully, one that teachers and parents can use and kids can love.”
Luqman-Dawson said the idea for the book came to her almost 20 years ago, inspired by an anecdote she heard in a Latin American studies class.
“I tell kids, ‘I know your teachers can be annoying, but listen to them — you never know when a teacher can change your life,'” she said.
After writing a few chapters, “life happened,” and she only picked up the project a decade later, after becoming a mother and wanting to share the history with her son. He is now a Wakefield High School student and she is a member of the advocacy group Black Parents of Arlington.
One one of her biggest influences is Mildred Taylor, a Newbery Award-winning American young adult novelist best known for “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.”
She says children’s literature can broach difficult topics in an engaging, but not sanitized, way.
“It allows you to hear voices — children’s voices — that are frank, honest, naive and wise, all in the midst of what an adult would recognize as perilous times,” she said. “[Children] don’t necessarily live in that space. It’s a safe space for us all to be there and hear them.”
“Freewater” features the voices of kids who had been enslaved and escaped as well as those who had never known enslavement.
“What I hope to do is put more color and texture and nuance to what we just call ‘the enslaved person,'” she said, adding that she also hopes readers “come out on the other side with a feeling of extraordinary empowerment and joy.”
For adult fans of “Freewater,” Luqman-Dawson recommends delving into the real-life history of Maroons with “Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons,” by Sylviane A. Diouf. For kids, she recommends “The 1619 Project: Born on the Water,” by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson.
Luqman-Dawson said she hopes her book “sparks a curiosity for more knowledge” about this “absolutely under-discussed” time period. The book was unintentionally published amid a heightened focus on Black history in the U.S., from Hannah-Jones’ “1619 Project” to new history curricula from the Virginia Department of Education, she said.
“It is only coincidental that I was published in a time when there was outward effort to suppress this kind of work or this kind of history, but I do believe that there is a reason for all things and ‘Freewater’ is exactly where it needs to be at exactly the right time,” she said. “Both awards make me feel like an extraordinary recognition and validation of this important work.”
Luqman-Dawson is planning to visit Wakefield next week, now as a newly minted award-winning novelist. She is currently working on a book that follows one “Freewater” character on a spin-off journey.
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