Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Henry's Freedom Box: Caldecott Review #5

Henry's Freedom Box was a Caldecott Honor recipient in 2008. The book was illustrated by Kadir Nelson and written by Ellen Levin. Speaking as a 5th grade teacher, I am always very careful when presenting books that may be perceived as factual, when in fact, they are not based on any documented evidence. An example of such would be Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Hopkinson, which, despite the lack of any documented evidence, places forth the supposition that quilts were used in the Underground Railroad as guides to freedom, a claim that has not been verified by any scholarly research(http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/070624/2quilts.htm). Henry's Freedom Box is based upon a documented escape of a slave in 1849. The story of Henry "Box" Brown is retold in simple, yet compelling prose. The pain and anguish of losing everyone you love is presented in such a way that students of all ages will be able to put the peculiar institution of slavery into perspective. Henry's mother says, "Do you see those leaves blowing in the wind? They are torn from the trees like slave children are torn from their families." In fact, Henry is torn from his childhood and adult families just like the leaves from an autumn tree. The story focuses on Henry as an adult and his resolve to be free. After losing his wife and children when they are sold, Henry decides to mail himself to a place where he can be free. The book tells of his dangerous journey to freedom.

Kadir Nelson illustrated Henry's Freedom Box using a mixture of mediums. Crosshatched pencil lines layered with watercolors and oil paints are used to create the large pictures that illustrate the book. The pictures convey a sense of sadness through the use of a muted, autumnal palate. The last illustration in the book is based upon the original lithograph that inspired Levine to write Henry's Freedom Box. Nelson also illustrated Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, which also was a Caldecott Honor recipient.

Many readers will be left with a sense of incompleteness. Does Henry ever find his family? This is the most common question asked when finishing the book and unfortunately the answer is no, although the book does not answer this question. As with the institution of slavery, all the answers are rarely tied up so neatly.

Several websites offer extension activities to supplement lesson plans regarding slavery, the Underground Railroad, and Henry's Freedom Box.



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