Erin Ramai's Reviews > Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad

Henry's Freedom Box by Ellen Levine
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Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story of the Underground Railroad is appropriate for students in grades 2-5. It received a Caldecott Honor Award in 2008.

It might seem odd, but Kadir Nelson's illustrations for this book reminded me of Brian Selznick's work in The Invention of Hugo Cabret. More than anything, the quality that seems to connect these illustrators in my mind is the crosshatching that adds texture, depth and shadow to the images in both close ups and "wide shots" of the action. To me, Nelson's work is what Selznick's might look like if oil and watercolor were added. Although Nelson's art was inspired by a lithograph of Henry "Box" Brown and Selznick was inspired by early film, the two artists are stylistically inseparable for me.

The very first page of this text is captivating as one side of the spread is a wash of sepia tone with a small, tan textbox inset which reads, "Henry Brown wasn't sure how old he was. Henry was a slave. And slaves weren't allowed to know their birthdays." The directness of the words paired with the image of Henry on the following page is both captivating and haunting. Henry Brown seems to stare out at you, beckon you, with sad eyes, to read his story.

The true events of his life, like his eyes, are somber. As a boy, Henry thinks he will be set free when his master dies, but instead is given to his owner's son and separated from his family. One day in town he meets Nancy, and months later, he asks her to be his wife. They have three children. Henry never imagined he could be so happy, but Nancy worries that the children will be sold. Then Nancy's fears become reality--Henry watches as his wife and children disappear from his life, forever. Next, out of great melancholy comes great desire. Henry devises a plan to escape the bonds of slavery. He decides to mail himself to freedom, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This fateful journey earns him the name Henry "Box" Brown. He declares that his first day of freedom, March, 30, 1849 is his birthday.

For me, this book is a satisfying whole. The breathtaking illustrations take readers along on Henry's heroic journey to freedom and the text, while sparse and to the point includes critical and meaningful details. It could be utilized in a unit on the underground railroad.

The reason this text received a Caldecott Honor is clear. The combination of drawing, oil and watercolor displays “excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed.” Nelson picks up on the most critical elements of the text and at times his close-up illustrations force the reader to focus on details they might otherwise overlook. His “pictorial interpretation of the story” makes the reader sympathize with Henry “Box” Brown, and rejoice at his freedom. The style of the illustrations—realism—is appropriate to the story because the text is historical fiction. In much of Nelson’s work, the story is told through the illustrations and Henry’s Freedom Box is no exception. The illustrations, particularly the sequence where Henry enters the box and ships himself to freedom will help younger readers understand and appreciate this book. I also feel that because the story begins with Henry as a child and follows him through adulthood, child readers will empathize with his story.
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message 1: by L-Crystal (last edited Mar 02, 2010 10:24AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

L-Crystal Wlodek What did you think of this book? I thought this book was very powerful and gave a realistic view of slavery. I also thought the language used throughout the book is particularly moving. Overall, I think the pictures and text work well together to make this inspiring story unforgetable.

Erin Ramai This book made me want to find more of Nelson's work.

message 3: by Donna (last edited Mar 07, 2010 06:13AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Donna I too loved this book. Kadir Nelson is a wonderful illustrator. Take a look at Dancing in the Wings by Debbie Allen. He did the illustrations for that book also and you can see the similarities in the technique that was used. Henry reminds me of Elijah Buxton. They both are children in search of something.

Sandy "Henry's Freedom Box" is a powerful history lesson told predominately through the illustrations. I agree that the text adds critical and meaningful details. Henry's difficult and tragic life as a slave is finally changed when he devises a plan to 'send' himself to Pennsylvania, a free state. This a story that is unlike any I've ever read before.

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