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The Story Behind Freewater

Amina Luqman-Dawson’s award-winning novel takes readers to a real-life place where people made a home after escaping enslavement.

Headshot of a woman smiling with a building in the background

Zachariah Dawson

When Amina Luqman-Dawson set out to write a novel, she wanted to share a part of history that’s rarely told. That novel, Freewater, is now the winner of the 2023 Newbery Medal, which is given every January to the best book for children or young teens published the previous year. 

In Freewater, which takes place in the early 1800s, 12-year-old Homer and his younger sister, Ada, escape from enslavement and make their way to a place in Virginia called the Great Dismal Swamp. There, they find a village called Freewater, which was founded by other people who had escaped enslavement.

Freewater book cover with Newbery Medal shows a young boy in swamp water

JIMMY Patterson Books/Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Freewater won the 2023 Newbery Medal.

Freewater is a successful community, in more ways than one. Life in the swamp, with its poisonous snakes and thick vegetation, is not easy. But the dangers of the swamp are no match for the dangers outside it. Slavery and racism make life perilous for Black Americans. People who escape enslavement are in danger of being recaptured. Hidden in the swamp, Freewater is a refuge—a fairly safe place. It’s a place of freedom. 

The book is fiction, but it’s based on history. The Great Dismal Swamp is a real place that stretches across parts of Virginia and North Carolina. As early as the 1600s, Black people established communities there after escaping from enslavement. When Luqman-Dawson learned about the history of the swamp, she realized that a lot of Americans were probably unaware of it. She wanted to set her novel there to share an important part of history with her readers.

“I want kids to walk away feeling totally inspired and thrilled by the strength, ingenuity, and humanity of this nation’s enslaved people,” Luqman-Dawson said in an interview with


Black History Month

A GIF that scrolls through the portraits of many well known and influential Black Americans

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-DIG-ppmsca-08978, LC-USW3-001546-D, LC-USZ62-127236, LC-USZ62-27663); Addison N. Scurlock—Michael Ochs Archives, Kean Collection—Archive Photos, © Michael Ochs Archives, Evan Agostini/Getty Images; Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C. (object no. 2009.50.2); PRNewsFoto/XM Satellite Radio/AP Images; AP Images;  NASA; National Archives, Washington, D.C. (2803441); Pete Souza—Official White House Photo; Animation Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

February is Black History Month in the United States. Want to read more? Check out the January 31 edition of In the News!

Did You Know?

Newbery Awards have been given out since the 1920s. Here are some winners that you might want to check out.


The Giver by Lois Lowry 

Sometime in the future, a young boy lives in a society where there is no suffering. But this ideal society has its costs.

Houghton Mifflin


The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman 

A boy is raised by ghosts in a graveyard after the death of his family. He learns some of the dead’s skills, like turning invisible, but eventually he must face life.



The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander 

Twin brothers Josh and JB share a love of basketball. Josh is also a skilled rapper. As the brothers go through changes in their lives, Josh tells their story in verse.

Houghton Mifflin

Two sides of a face with eyes closed and one side showing under the skin.


The Last Cuentista by Donna Barbra Higuera 

After a group of people move to a new planet, 12-year-old Petra finds that no one else remembers Earth. Only Petra has the stories of the past. Only she can protect the future.

Levine Querido

Freedom in an Unlikely Place

NC Wetlands

The Great Dismal Swamp was not an easy place to live.

Who lived in the Great Dismal Swamp? Historians say that some of the first people to live there were Algonquin people. Many of these American Indians moved into the swamp to escape the white settlers who were taking over their land. In the 1600s, the swamp became a home for people who had escaped enslavement. The swamp was difficult to get through, making it an attractive place for anyone who didn’t want to be found.

According to historians, the first Black Americans to arrive in the swamp learned subsistence (survival) techniques from the Algonquins. These skills included hunting, fishing, and some farming.

There were communities of Black Americans in the Great Dismal Swamp until the Civil War. (When the Civil War ended in 1865, slavery became illegal.) Archaeologists have studied the swamp, searching for anything the people who lived there left behind. They have uncovered the foundations of cabins and the remains of fire pits. They’ve also found tools—very simple tools, such as stone arrowheads. It wouldn’t have been easy to find materials to make tools in the swamp. Archaeologists say it’s likely that the Algonquin people brought tools into the swamp. And, hundreds of years later, Black people found them and used them. 

Life in the Great Dismal Swamp would have been difficult. But for people who had once been enslaved, it was a life of freedom.

Fiction’s Full Range

Graphic showing elements of different fiction genres, including a knight, a wizard, and a robot.

© TopVectors—iStock/Getty Images Plus; Animation Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

March 2 is the start of Read Across America Week. We celebrated with a look at Freewater, a work of historical fiction. But maybe you’re more into science fiction, horror, drama, or mystery. 

There are so many genres to explore. You can read more about some of them—and find some examples—at Britannica School.

Learn more at Britannica School!






: a place that provides shelter or protection

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