They Built Me for Freedom: The Story of Juneteenth and Houston’s Emancipation Park

HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. May 2024. 32p. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9780063286054.
PreS-Gr 3–Though nonfiction, this lyrical picture book is narrated in the voice of the Emancipation Park in Houston, TX, itself, exploring its history and its promise. Land for the park was purchased in 1872 to commemorate Freedom Day, the precursor to Juneteenth. Evocative phrases—“They built me to show they were strong” and “Singing songs of jubilee...running free”—capture the essence of each spread. Vignettes throughout the book illustrate different eras, with the first few illustrations set in a contemporary celebration. The setting then jumps back to the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, showing figures rejoicing over the news. Other scenes include the establishment of the park, the public pool for Black families during Jim Crow, protest marches, and a melancholy view of the park in decline. The upbeat images as neighbors gather to give the park a makeover replace the grays of the neglected park with the joyful colors seen earlier. As the book comes to a close, the illustrations circle back to the modern setting; a crowd dances to the music of a band playing. Meanwhile, backstage is aglow with images of ancestors lifting their arms as chains break free. Ellis compresses a lot of history into a flowing narrative, perfectly borne out in Mohammed’s paintings, while an afterword provides more details of the park’s history and its rededication in 2017, including the involvement of architect Philip Freelon in the renovation plans.
VERDICT A moving portrayal of community and appreciation for the past, this book is a fine addition to all collections.

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