Book Review: Henry's Freedom Box
By Hope McPherson
Henry's Freedom Box
Written by Ellen Levine
Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Scholastic Press 2007, 40 pp.
During the three decades before the Civil War, slave narratives played an important role in the abolitionist movement — chipping away at the Southern argument that slavery was just a "peculiar institution" that gave slaves more stability than Northern laborers had, says Norman Yetman, University of Kansas professor emeritus and author of Voices From Slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, more than 150 narratives were published as books or pamphlets, some written by the former slaves, while others were ghost written by abolitionists. Today, many still exist (the Library of Congress maintains an extensive collection), and one narrative in particular — Henry “Box” Brown — caught the attention of author, Ellen Levine.
Levine, an award-winning children’s author, read the 1872 book The Underground Railroad by abolitionist William Still, himself the son of former slaves. Reading Still's 800-page volume, Levine was struck by the tale of Henry “Box” Brown, who literally mailed himself from slavery in Richmond, Virginia, to freedom in Philadelphia.
Brown had written his own slave narrative in 1851 following his escape, and, in 2007, Levine retold his story in Henry’s Freedom Box, which became a Caldecott Honor Book.
A Harrowing Journey
In Henry’s Freedom Box, Henry’s story begins when his mother tells him the reality of living in slavery. “Do you see those leaves blowing in the wind?” she asks. “They are torn from the trees like slave children are torn from their families.” Soon, the prediction of Henry’s mother comes true: When the master is on his deathbed, Henry is bequeathed to the master’s son, taken from his family, and put to work in a tobacco factory.
Written for children ages 4 to 8, the 40-page book is bursting with poetic language by Levine, whose other books include Freedom’s Children and Darkness Over Denmark. The book’s colorful watercolor/oil paint illustrations by Kadir Nelson (who also illustrated Ellington Was Not a Street) were inspired by lithographs created in 1850 for an anti-slavery rally.
Henry’s Freedom Box follows Henry as he grows up, marries a slave owned by another man, and has three children. When his wife’s master has financial troubles, though, Henry’s family is sold. Torn again from those he loves, Henry vows to escape slavery forever — and steps into a wooden crate to mail himself North.
Henry’s nail-biting 27-hour journey includes travel by cart, steamboat, and rail. More than once, he travels upside down for hours because the mail handlers ignore the “This Side Up” missive on the box (not to mention the handle-with-care plea).
Written for the grade-school set, Henry’s Freedom Box will raise numerous questions from youngsters about slavery, injustice, and hard-won freedom. Levine did chose not to include a few key incidents, including Henry’s singing a hymn and thanking God when he first emerged from the box, but the lyrical beauty of the book may land this book on coffee tables or in prominent spots on family bookshelves.
Hope McPherson is the online communications specialist and contributing online editor for Response magazine at Seattle Pacific University. She is also a Seattle-area freelance writer.
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