Amina Luqman-Dawson: Newbery Winner 'Freewater' Is Having Its Moment at Exactly the Right Time | Youth Media Awards

The author says her novel loosely based on the Maroon communities of escaped formerly enslaved people will give young readers a connection across cultures and experiences and help restart the difficult conversation around slavery. 

Photo by Zachariah Dawson


Early Monday afternoon, author Amina Luqman-Dawson felt like she was "floating in a dream." 

"I am happy to stay in this state for a while," said Luqman-Dawson after her debut novel Freewater won the 2023 Newbery Medal, and she was also awarded the Coretta Scott King Author Award. 

Luqman-Dawson hadn't been waiting for her phone to ring as the Youth Media Awards announcements approached. She didn't even know the committees called to tell winners beforehand. So when she answered an unknown number on Sunday and found the Coretta Scott King selection committee at the other end of the line, she was shocked. When they told her she had won the Author Award, she was elated.

"I screamed, I cried, and I screamed againthose poor peopleI dropped to my knees at some point," said Luqman-Dawson. "I just felt so excited and overjoyed."

Freewater had "made it," she thought to herself, describing a feeling of accomplishment and contentment.

"So you can only imagine how absolutely shocked and amazed and overjoyed I was when I received the call from the Newbery committee," she added. "I screamed and, again, I dropped to my knees. I knew at that moment: The world's going to know about Freewater. So many kids and parents and teachers are going to connect with these characters and know this story. That's so important to me."

Freewater is a fictional story with a "nugget of wonderful history about Maroons in the United States," said Luqman-Dawson. Maroon communities, or colonies, were settlements of formerly enslaved people who had escaped and formed communities in geographically secluded regions like mountains, or, in the case of Freewater, a swamp, which was inspired by the Great Dismal Swamp, a Maroon community in North Carolina and Virginia. She could have easily written a nonfiction book, but Luqman-Dawson sought the connection of fiction.

"The key [with] fiction is it allows you to place yourself in the shoes of someone completely different from yourself and go on a journey with them," she said. "That feeling of having that connection with that character is one that really stays with you forever. I think sometimes, in dealing with history [and] African American history, we can share the facts of it, which is needed and important—we need to know who Harriet Tubman is; we need to know Frederick Douglass—but equally important is needing to feel and experience the world in the shoes of someone, particularly an enslaved person of that time. That connection can last a lifetime."

She knows from the books she read as a kid that fictional stories can build a lasting connection across cultures and experiences.

"I always use the example of Anne of Green Gables and connecting so much with this character and this place that had absolutely nothing to do with my experience," she said. "It left a feeling in me that has lasted until now....I feel as though fiction can create value for [a] place and time because it gives you this sense of connection that goes deep and stays forever."

Not all children's publishing people understood Freewater's place in the industry. They sought to categorize it, asking Luqman-Dawson more than once if it was a history book.

"Yes, it's loosely based on the Great Dismal Swamp, but [those asking] don't understand that the bigger value here is that sense of connection, that ability to see the humanity in all its layers and depth of the myriad of characters that Freewater creates for you," she said.

The 416-page middle grade book tells the complex tale of multiple characters on a complicated adventure, features that could have presented challenges toward award recognition. Instead, Luqman-Dawson believes, those characteristics are part of why it is an award winner. 

"I think the length, the complexity of itthose things have led toward creating a unique story experience [that is] particularly unique in African American history and our approach to African American history.  I am thrilled that the committees, both the Coretta Scott King and the Newbery committees, saw that special quality," she said.

"I feel like [Freewater] is exactly where it needs to be at exactly the right time," added Luqman-Dawon. 

It is a time when government officials in Florida won't allow an Advanced Placement course on African American Studies to be taught in its state. It is a time when books about Black history and titles written by people of color and members of the LGBTQIA+ community are being removed from library shelves. It is a time, one might think, her book could be hijacked into the explosive fight. But Luqman-Dawson is not concerned.

"I believe that this attack on African American history and LGBTQIA experiences is rooted in the fact that there's a hunger out there to start conversations," she said. "Parents are wanting to share this with their children. Teachers are hoping that they can find a way [to teach it]. Children are wanting and wondering and open to it....So I don't worry. In fact, I feel extraordinarily hopeful that people are more than ever looking for clear steps and clear action toward bringing new life to these old, hard topics."

About the awards recognition, she said, "It is a sense of gratification beyond belief," but "[Freewater] is almost bigger than me. I'm lucky to have put the book out. Hopefully, the world is ready for it."

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (, @karayorio) is senior news editor at School Library Journal.

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