John Brown: His Fight for Freedom
By John Hendrix
Abrams Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 9780810937987
Grades 3-6
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Christopher Columbus was a great man who overcame the odds to bravely discover North America.

How do you feel about the above sentence? Pretty simplistic, right? You and I know there’s a whole lot more to Columbus’ story. That sort of broad-brush statement-making can be dangerous. Take John Brown, for instance. Madman you say? Crazy idealist? Not so fast. In John Brown: His Fight for Freedom, author/illustrator John Hendrix offers us a profile that reveals the good and the bad of this early abolitionist. I can’t remember seeing a more nuanced picture book take on a controversial historical figure.

John Brown was an abolitionist to his core. In the 1840s and 50s, at a time when some thought slaves should be free, Brown wanted more: equality. He lived and died for the cause. After creating a reputation as a madman fighting to make Kansas a free state, he set his sights on a more dangerous plan. Brown saw the capture of weaponry at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia as key to his mission of ending slavery. Brown and his men began the raid, but things didn’t go as planned, leaving Brown trapped. Outnumbered and alone, he was captured and put on trial for insurrection, conspiracy, and high treason – crimes he was eventually hanged for.

As Hendrix explains in the Author’s Note, great care was taken to capture the complexity of Brown and his actions. Long misunderstood, recent research on the man has brought with it new attitudes on his fight. Says the author:

[Though] the United States hanged him as a traitor, I feel we must not dismiss him as a madman. Terrorists crave distruction and turmoil, and the seed of John’s rebellion was compassion.

This book is an important step in presenting these views for young readers.

Vivid, detailed, bold, memorable – Hendrix works wonders here with pen & ink and acrylic washes. Earth tones are rendered in crystal-clarity, providing a crispness that makes some other books seem out-of-focus in comparison. Hand-lettered passages pop up intermittently, highlighting important elements of the story.  The result is a book that feels like a statement. The image of a battered, resolute Brown in the gallows will stand out as one of the most memorable children’s book images of the year.


A beautifully candid take on a man who’s life has been misunderstood, John Brown: His Fight for Freedom is a picture book biography that deserves to be seen. Make room on the shelf.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Check out the Nonfiction Monday roundup at Jean Little Library.

Visit the John Hendrix website.

Also reviewed by TheHappyNappyBookseller.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.