Julius Lester: Biography & Books

Instructor: J.R. Hudspeth

Jackie has taught college English and Critical Thinking and has a Master's degree in English Rhetoric and Composition

Julius Lester is an educator and award-winning writer of both children's and adult's books, but how well do you know him and his work? Read on to find out more about Julius Lester's life and work!


Julius Lester was born in 1939 in St. Louis, Missouri, and he and his family moved around the Midwest and South during his childhood. He lived in Kansas, Tennessee and Arkansas (where he visited his grandmother) during these years. As a child, Lester thought himself a poor writer and wanted to be a musician instead.

Julius Lester is a musician, educator and author who has won numerous awards for his teaching and writing.
Julius Lester

Lester went off to college in the late 1950s, where he got involved in the American Civil Rights Movement and dabbled in both music and writing, earning a B.A. in English from Fisk University, a historically black university in Tennessee.

After leaving college, Lester made music and co-wrote a music book with famous American folk singer Pete Seeger. He then moved into radio and television, hosting shows on local New York radio and television stations while still making music on the side.

Lester dabbled in music, radio and television, and in 1968, he went into publishing as well. Very much active in the Civil Rights Movement, Lester wrote, Look Out, Whitey! Black Power Gon' Get Your Mama, and he followed up with his first children's book, To Be a Slave. To Be a Slave won a Newbery Honor Medal.

Lester continued to write, penning over twenty books between 1968 and 2009. He also taught at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst until retiring in 2003.


Lester's work spans decades, but many of his books explore the themes of heritage, race and his experiences as an African American.

To Be a Slave, the Newbery Honor winner, is a book that shares the experience of slavery through the eyes of slaves. For this book, Lester collected a number of stories that slaves wrote down or told and organized them into the book, supported by his own thoughts on the stories. As Lester continued to write, he became very interested in two things: the theme of identity and a collection of stories related to African Americans.

Lester explored identity in books such as Who I Am and Lovesong: Becoming a Jew. In these books, Lester charts changes within himself, his religious beliefs and his thoughts on the world.

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