‘Freewater’ Follow-up? Amina Luqman-Dawson Discusses Newbery Winner, Possible Spinoff

The author discusses her Newbery-winning novel, the character development, research, the importance of tackling hard topics with middle grade readers, and more.

Amina Luqman-Dawson researching the Great Dismal Swamp
Photos courtesy of Amina Luqman-Dawson

It has been almost six months since Amina Luqman-Dawson’s novel Freewater became the surprise winner of the 2023 Newbery Medal. In an interview with SLJ, Luqman-Dawson revealed that the prestigious award-winning story might not be the end for at least one of the book’s characters.

Freewater, the middle grade title about two children escaping enslavement and joining a community of other formerly enslaved people, is a fictional story based on the Maroon communities of formerly enslaved people who settled in secluded areas like mountains and swamps. Freewater’s setting was inspired by the Great Dismal Swamp, a Maroon community in North Carolina and Virginia. The book brought a largely unknown piece of history to its readers.

In an interview with Luqman-Dawson, the author discussed her character development, research, importance of tackling hard topics with middle grade readers, and more.

Freewater uses alternating perspectives. What drew you to this form of storytelling? Did it develop during the writing process? 

There is no one way that enslavement impacted any one person. There were a variety of voices and experiences and personalities that were all trying to figure out ways to survive and live within this system. [In many representations of enslavement] that can be flattened out and one-dimensional. But as soon as you introduce all of these different voices, you see complexity and humanity.
I wrote the book completely in the third person. What I love about writing in the third person is that I'm able to jump from place to place, time to time, be anyone and everywhere. But when it came time to revise, it was so difficult to figure out how to bring the story closer to the reader. It was daunting. It started with Homer. I changed his perspective to the first person. Then, it became clear that each chapter might have its own character. I love that in the end, there are all these voices. It feels like a community.

Homer and Sanzi have the most airtime. Did you know that they would be your focal points?

I knew that Homer would be. Sanzi is a wonderful character. I realized that I wanted Sanzi to have her own space because she is so unique. She has no concept of white supremacy or race. Being able to follow her and see her be so free was so much fun. She got bigger and bigger over time.

How did you decide that Homer would be the main, first-person narrator? 

Homer lives so internally, so thoughtfully. He has very little external dialogue, because of his sense of invisibility. So, it felt natural, then, to have him lead us through the story, to hear that voice continually. 

Homer uses invisibility, and Anna is the opposite. 

I'm so glad you asked me about her. I don't get asked about her enough. It's always about power, right? I wanted to find moments of power even in the most difficult, the most unjust of circumstances, and she is in the worst of it, right? She is living on the plantation. She's in the big house itself. How do you give her a sense of power within that space in a way that feels authentic? She has a mental fortitude. That is extraordinary, right? I cast it as her seeing things as they were meant to be, but that is her mental fortitude, her ability to literally create an understanding of the world that allows her to survive. I love that about her. 

We know she's being physically victimized, she's being mentally victimized, but we also know that there's a part of her that is in control in her mind, and she has her plans. She has her goals, she has her vision for what life should be, and I think that helps create a bit of hopefulness and a bit of protection for the reader and for Anna. It helps the reader to be in that space and not feel like victimization is the only thing in that space. It'd be too heavy. It can make you want to run from this space right. I didn't want people to necessarily run from this space. I wanted any reader to feel like they could be with Anna.

What stuck with me was when she imagined all the food going all over them. This idea gave her peace. It's such a survival mechanism.

We each have our own thoughts, and so each of the characters have their own thoughts and survival mechanisms. That is Anna's way of [surviving] the hardest of circumstances. I don't think that I've gone out on some limb. I think that anyone that survived this as an enslaved person had some way to get them through their lives. That is the way we should, in fact, see them. So how do you do this? How do you survive today, live to tomorrow? 

Did you go to the Great Dismal Swamp as part of your research for the book?

Yes, absolutely. I took my son and my husband. It was lovely to get on Lake Drummond and see what the water was like there. To see the color of the water, all the smells. It was very different from the Great Dismal Swamp of then. So many fires have happened. So many trees have been cut down for shingling and things like that. So, it’s a different place. But it still has this feel, still has this sense of adventure. At least I felt that. I [was] like, “Oh, definitely, a story is gonna happen here.”


You mentioned in the back of the book that what they had was what they took from the land. So, there are not a lot of artifacts, because it all goes back to the land.

Yes. That’s exactly what [Great Dismal Swamp archaeologist and professor] ­Daniel Sayers was saying. Imagine that the history that we’re going off of, the main history, is archaeological. It’s like shards, it’s pieces, it’s remnants of a people. We have some folks who have their own recollections that have been written, but the science of today is based on this archaeology. I always find that amazing. God, he’s doing the work.

[That’s] how it felt as a storyteller. When you start from that place, you are filling in all of this empty space. I remember feeling very nervous about doing that, very nervous about, what right do I have to create a culture, to create a life in this space? But it must be done. Those voices must be restored. Not just simply because they had to be clandestine, not even though they had been contested—even though they had to be, even though they could not tell their tale. That does not eliminate their voice. It should not.

So, I remember having to give myself that permission. It really was the history informing the narrative. I did hit a point where I’m like, I need to inform the history as well.


Luqman-Dawson and son on Lake Drummond

What was the most challenging part of the research?

It was that I didn’t have, and I wished for, more voices from those who lived within the swamp themselves. It made me scared to step in that space, but I made it. It gave me a little separation. It gave me pause, because it felt like I was stepping into a sacred space.

Once I allowed myself in the space, I just loved what could be created there. I found these kids there, and finding the kids, finding the voices is what it’s all about. Because if you finish this book and you say, “Oh, I learned all this about Maroons.” I’m like, well, was that why we’re here? That’s not why we’re here. That’s nice. I think the Maroons were a great lure to get people into the story, but we’re here because we’re talking about the people that survive this extraordinarily destructive system, dehumanizing system, and the humanity that was found within that. And so that’s why we’re here. So ironically, the thing I was most afraid of was the thing that’s most important about the book.


I can’t speak to what your thoughts were, but to me, at its heart, Freewater is a story about community and human connection, despite everything trying to destroy and dehumanize. At a pivotal moment—without giving away things—a character says, “They get the best of us when we love anybody or anything. That’s how they keep us.” This is a tough thing for middle grade readers. How did you decide to dig into this?

I honestly believe that middle grade readers have great capacity for ­compassion and understanding, and to bring that capacity for understanding and compassion into the space of enslaved people is of utmost importance.

So, for me to have written a book that was solely adventure, something cool, would have been nice, but we’re here because of the humanity, we’re here because of building understanding.

I think that sometimes [that middle grade age] is exactly the time we need to have that moment of understanding and connection. Once you have it at that age, then all the other facts and figures can come later on—this is how many people were enslaved, and this is where they were, and this is the amount of hard labor they did, and how they contributed to the system. It brings that much more meaning to all the facts and figures that come later.

If you start from a place of connection and understanding of these enslaved people with this history, then that can carry you and be the filter through what you understand and really connect with all the realities that come later.


What are you working on next?

Well, next is a baby project where I’m trying to take a character from Freewater and follow that character on their own journey, and hopefully introduce another fascinating bit of history at the same time. That is my labor of love. I’ve got the itch again, so hopefully it will carry me through.

Kristyn Dorfman is a lower and middle school librarian at Friends Academy in New York.

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