A True Story from the Underground Railroad

Available at IndieBound

Henry’s Freedom Box

Ellen Levine
Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
I was browsing in my library when I saw this beautiful book perched on a display shelf. How could you not be drawn in by Henry’s adorable little face? Illustrator Kadir Nelson received a Caldecott Honor for his work on this book, and it is easy to see why. As I was reading, I was mesmerized by the expressions on the characters’ faces, especially one of Henry working in a tobacco warehouse.  I admit, I didn’t realize that the Caldecott recognized illustrators – I just assumed that the honor was for the author.  Here, Levin and Nelson work together to bring to life the amazing true story of how one man shipped himself to freedom.

We meet Henry as a little boy. We’re told that Henry doesn’t know how old he is, because slaves aren’t allowed to know their birthdays. In just a few short pages, Henry grows older, gets married, starts a family. Levine tells us how his status as a slave affected him at each stage of his life. Henry’s immense psychological burden comes through loud and clear. When Henry makes his daring escape, I was holding my breath, anxious and spellbound, even though I knew the outcome. I can’t imagine how terrifying his journey must have been.

I don’t read much children’s literature, so I don’t really know how to compare this to others in the genre. The story just whizzed by. I barely had time to blink before decades had passed and Henry was emerging from his box into a Philadelphia parlor. It seems like a good book to read with a child, so you can discuss it. The author’s note at the end adds a few details about how Henry managed his time in the box, which are helpful. I can imagine a child asking lots of questions about Henry’s situation, and it could be a great teaching opportunity. Keep the tissues nearby, though! I was tearing up at the end.

You can watch Levine discuss the book at her website. She tells us that the Fugitive Slave Act was passed shortly after Henry escaped slavery. Rather than risk being sent back, he sailed to England to promote the abolitionist cause. 

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