Nearer My Freedom: An Interview with Co-Author Lesley Younge

Nearer My Freedom: The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano by Himself by Monica Edinger and Lesley Younge has earned recognition with five starred reviews and praise from industry professionals. This new release explores Olaudah Equiano’s life story—his childhood in Africa, enslavement, liberation, and life as a free man—through “found verse,” a creative approach to primary source analysis. The authors selected excerpts from Equiano’s autobiography to create the poetic retelling, adding annotations to deepen understanding.

Today co-author Lesley Younge joins us to discuss the process of co-authoring such a unique nonfiction title and why it is perfect for 6th and 7th grade readers.

front cover of Nearer My Freedom

What was the inspiration for the book?

Monica came to me with the idea to create a verse novel of Olaudah Equiano’s story in 2018. We were very inspired by some new approaches to realistic and historical fiction that used verse. When we taught fourth grade together at The Dalton School, we used The Kidnapped Prince by Ann Cameron to talk about forced immigration, the Atlantic Triangle Trade, and slavery.  That book is great, but it’s for a younger audience. I was teaching 6th and 7th grade by then and there really wasn’t anything available for that reading level.

The original text is quite dense and difficult, and we wondered what it might be like to craft something for YA readers. I did a found verse project with The Kidnapped Prince, and it was a very powerful way to engage with that text. So, we thought making found verse out of the entire original text could create a very compelling remix and be appropriate for older readers.

Why this book and why now?

The current climate around teaching history demands that books like this exist for young people. They need access to stories like Olaudah Equiano’s because he lived through this terrible experience of being kidnapped, being forced across the ocean, and being sold and enslaved, and then he wrote it all down. There are some who want to lie to young people about the past or to gloss over the truth, but primary sources don’t let us do that. There is so much value in learning to listen to those voices that call us back in time and tell us how it really was. While Equiano’s narrative represents just one story and perspective of millions, he shares a great amount of detail and we get to see the arc of his life, even beyond slavery. His full humanity is brought into the light, and his story is told in his own words.

What do you hope readers learn from this book?

We hope readers gain an appreciation for Olaudah Equiano’s journey – his physical journey and also the internal one where he gradually understood that his gaining his own freedom was not enough. He had to help other enslaved people. We also hope they learn from his resilience and persistence. Equiano insisted on becoming free, becoming educated, and becoming the best human being that he could.  Even when there were setbacks he persevered through the despair and stayed focused on his goals.

Additionally, he sheds light on the role of Black abolitionists in the quest to end slavery. He used his powerful story, his eloquent voice, and his connections to foster greater freedom for himself and millions of other Black people in the diaspora. We hope young people put down the text and wonder about how they can make an impact for social change and justice. Equiano is also an incredible writer and orator. We hope that the verse allows them to appreciate his artistry as a communicator.

Spread from Nearer My Freedom with poems 29 and 30.

What is the most surprising thing you discovered while researching the book?

I became very interested in the process of British abolition. I knew that it happened earlier than American abolition, and I always wondered about the potential relationship between the Revolution and the conversations and advocacy around abolition that were happening in England. There was a whole grassroots effort that was interracial and that involved women. The focus on the slave trade itself meant that there were immediately global implications for their work since they had to consider what it would take to stop trade throughout the entire triangle between Europe, West Africa, the Caribbean and North America. So many industries were involved: ship builders in Bristol, factories in Liverpool, agricultural plantation in the West Indies. They were not thinking local or small. They had to think big and they were actually able to build a coalition quite effectively.

What was it like to co-author this book?

Monica and I have a long history of working together. She hired me for my first teaching position as an assistant teacher on her fourth grade team in 2006 and taught me so much about education and engaging young people. When she first approached me about the book, the idea was that she would write most of the poetry and I would focus on the prose contextual sections. That was how we prepared the proposal. Shortly after Lerner/Zest made an offer, Monica had a severe stroke. That changed everything. It wasn’t clear whether the project would survive. I was a very new writer at the time, and she was the one with the previous publishing experience. Once her health stabilized, she made it clear that we still needed to publish this book.

Thankfully, Lerner/Zest stood by us and continued to be interested in the project. Because of Monica’s ongoing aphasia, we have had to find alternative ways to communicate and collaborate. Luckily, we have over 15 years of friendship and hours of conversations under our belt. Through a combination of text, instant messaging, and google document sharing, we were able to finish the manuscript. I could still hear her voice in my head as we completed the book. It was an amazing feat of partnership.

Connect with the authors

Lesley Younge is an author, mother, and middle school educator who is passionate about interdisciplinary education, experiential education, community engagement, and mindfulness. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Monica Edinger is an elementary and middle school educator, book reviewer, and children’s book author. She received her master’s degrees from Teachers College at Columbia University and runs the blog Educating Alice. She is based in New York.

Additional Resources

Betsy Bird interviews the authors of Nearer My Freedom.

Read this review from A Fuse #8 Production.

Lesley Younge shares her thoughts on why students should read hard history in this article from Teen Librarian Toolbox.

Praise for Nearer My Freedom

★”In this unique work of nonfiction, Edinger and Younge transform the words of Olaudah Equiano’s 1789 autobiographical slavery narrative into found-verse poetry. . . . [An] absorbing, singular creation.”—starred, Booklist

★”Highly readable as well as informative. An excellent way to understand a remarkable individual and his times.”—starred, Kirkus Reviews

★”Without losing the source text’s emotional heft, Edinger and Younge’s visceral poems respectfully provide an effective entry point into the seminal work.”—starred, Publishers Weekly

★”[T]he story makes for compelling reading that moves quickly. . . . This important and unique work introduces this pivotal man to a new audience and will make for interesting classroom discussions.”—starred, School Library Journal

★”Monica Edinger and Lesley Younge—former fourth grade co-teachers—brilliantly transform the autobiography into ‘found poems’ by cutting and rearranging Equiano’s original into verse . . . Their deft transformation of Equiano’s odyssey is well-equipped to inspire and empower new generations.”—starred, Shelf Awareness

“This moving found-verse adaptation of the formerly enslaved Equiano’s 1789 memoir makes a seminal work of history accessible to young readers.”—New York Times Book Review

Find more amazing author and illustrator interviews on the Lerner blog!

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