Profile of 2023 Newbery Medal and CSK Author Award winner Amina Luqman-Dawson

Amina in seventh grade.
Photo courtesy of Amina Luqman-Dawson.

Working with Amina Luqman-Dawson has been nothing short of joyous. Back before the incredible double whammy of the Coretta Scott King and Newbery awards, before Freewater became a New York Times and Indie bestseller, I knew from my very first editorial calls with Amina that she was delightfully observant. She has a knack for taking in her surroundings, ingesting that information, and then executing with precise strength. As an editor (and eager collaborator of hers), I’ve appreciated how this skill has made Amina a top-tier reviser and thoughtful partner during every step of her publication process. The more I’ve gotten to know Amina, the more I’ve realized that this skill of observation is something that she carries with her in many aspects of her life — and it serves her well.

Every editor knows that voice is a difficult thing to teach, but when you’ve got it, you’ve got it. And Amina’s story had it from the beginning. Her ability to listen, learn, and create paved the way for her success at penning a pitch-perfect novel that meets young readers exactly where they are.

Freewater, her debut children’s book, follows a large, dynamic cast of characters, but it’s primarily led by twelve-year-old Homer. The historical novel opens in the 1800s with Homer and his younger sister fleeing their life of enslavement on Southerland Plantation. They’re seeking refuge in a seemingly inhospitable forest that’s based on the real-life Great Dismal Swamp, a very dense area stretching from Virginia to North Carolina that consists of murky marshes and is home to animals such as black bears and snakes. In recent years, historians and researchers have unearthed artifacts proving that some people lived within the swamp. Those individuals included Indigenous peoples as well as formerly enslaved runaways who lived freely and formed maroon communities. This rich history of maroon life was the backdrop and the inspiration for Amina’s award-winning novel.

In Freewater, Homer’s observant nature allows him to escape with his sister, hide in the marsh, and eventually learn the ways of the maroon community he finds within the swamp. It’s the little details that Amina captures through Homer’s eyes that invite tween readers — and really, readers of any age — into the fervor and fear he feels.

Amina is also wildly observant of how kids read. Over the course of our editorial letters together, she pored over every facet of her work. And no matter what she changed or how much action she added, she was firm in slicing and sculpting the chapters to ensure they were perfectly bite-sized. Each one is easily devoured, pulling you to the next and never letting you go until the last page is turned. Amina’s attention to word choice and description ensured that each passage felt accurate to every perspective of her vibrant and dynamic cast — again, her observant nature at work. She even shared the manuscript at various stages with her own son (a tween himself at the time of edits) for insight from her target audience. The result of all this fine-tuning is a story that moves swiftly yet pauses just enough to tug at the heartstrings.

Interestingly, Amina wasn’t born a bookworm. It was her sister who inspired her. At a young age, her mother would take Amina and her older sister to their parent-teacher conferences together. Amina clearly remembers the feedback her sister received — “she’s a wonderful reader” — as well as her own teacher’s more critical feedback, encouraging her to spend more time with books. Amina followed in her sister’s footsteps and picked up the Beverly Cleary books around her house. She began to read everything she could, at one point aiming to “read a whole wall of the library.” And her passion didn’t stop there. Soon, she and her sister began a critique group of sorts. During the summers when she was in junior high, they’d have “read-offs” and sit together talking through their favorite and least favorite aspects of each book. There’s no doubt that these childhood moments contributed to her passion for middle-grade fiction, decades later.

* * *

Writing and revising Freewater during 2020 and 2021 were no easy feats, and working on the book raised complex feelings for Amina. Through it all, she observed. In many ways, writing has been her point of solace, giving her a safe place to explore and keeping her hands and mind busy. However, writing historical fiction, particularly historical fiction about America’s history of enslavement, can take a toll. And working on such a story during the summer of 2020, as the world witnessed horrifying acts of violence and police brutality onscreen and in news stories, Amina couldn’t help but see disheartening parallels.

There were days when she would take a break from Homer’s world and the injustices facing her characters in the 1800s, step away from the world at her desk, and take her son to a present-day protest demanding equality and protection of Black folks. She remembers reading and hearing about the racial and class disparities connected to COVID-19 susceptibility rates and noticing how “the world was…changing in extraordinary ways, but you still saw the same themes coursing through, every day.” Although writing can be a healing art, Amina said, “in the same breath, it reinforced how the struggle continues.” She observed these hard truths about her world — about our world — and used that desire for a better, brighter future to fuel her writing. She observed, and then she acted.

The result is Freewater, a lyrical and propulsive novel that was published in February 2022 and shed light on a little-known piece of American history. Amina has been dedicated to the idea of this story for nearly twenty years, having first come across the history of maroon communities in the Caribbean and South America when she attended college. Years later, she did some early research and writing but put the project down. Finally, about ten years ago, she returned to the story, and her research intensified.

In her author’s note and in interviews, Amina credits anthropologists and historians such as Dr. Daniel Sayers and Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf for their work and research on maroon communities. Because their anthropological and historical texts for adults exist, Amina was able to imagine a story that could offer this knowledge to young readers in an accessible way, as well as initiate any child’s interest in the past. In a time when books are being banned and legislation across the country threatens to narrow literary offerings, the world needs stories that encourage curiosity and a variety of viewpoints that support our diverse population. Amina’s fictional work not only opens conversations to confront and understand our country’s painful history of enslavement, but it also piques children’s interest, leading them to discover additional resources and educational pathways. In every publicity spot and interview, Amina has ­reiterated the value of these conversations in working toward a more just future.

Today, with a child of her own, Amina has passed down her own curiosity, observational skills, and opinions. Her fourteen-year-old son is at an age where he’s making his own choices about the books that he surrounds himself with, just like Amina once did. And he’s become a strong critic in his own right. That’s something Amina adores about him. She firmly taught him: “Read what you want. That is your power. That is your choice.” And there is power in choice. Amina knows that the choices we offer children are vital, that they need books that cover the past, the present, and the imagined future. She carefully, thoughtfully, bravely penned a children’s book that makes more space for an emerging history and invites readers to consider ideas of community, resistance, and freedom. It is heartwarming to know that Freewater is making its way into so many more readers’ hands because of these esteemed awards, and I believe that the countless classroom conversations sparked by this novel are just the beginning of something special.

Congratulations, Amina. It’s incredible to know that Freewater will be read by children for years to come, and we can’t wait to see what you do next.

From the July/August 2023 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2023.

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Alexandra Hightower

Alexandra Hightower, editor of Freewater by Amina Luqman-Dawson, is a senior editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. She is a 2021 Publishers Weekly Star Watch honoree and a cofounder of Inkluded, a nonprofit championing diversity in the publishing industry.

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