Ellen Levine's Henry's Freedom Box
Caldecott Honor illustrations by Kadir Nelson
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
An American slave narrative in children's book form
I find myself taking a deep breath as I recommend this book for children four through eight.
Slavery was an abomination. There's no way to mask that, even in a picture book.
Henry's Freedom Box is the true story of Henry Brown, a slave who gained fame in the mid 1800s for mailing himself from Richmond, VA to Philadelphia, PA.
Of course, more important than fame, he gained freedom.
Did that make everything okay for Henry? No. Slavery had already taken him from his birth family, his wife, his three children.
I think it's important for parents to be prepared in sharing this well done book with their children. There are some punches pulled about the terrible reality of being owned, but there is more than enough left to shock and stun.
Henry's Freedom Box introduces us to Henry as a child. He is soon man enough to marry and have children of his own, but he has already been given to his owner's son and thus wrenched from the family he grew up with. Then the family he makes is wrenched from him too.
Down but not defeated, Henry is motivated to action. With help from a friend and a white abolitionist, he resolves to mail himself to freedom in a tiny crate, his freedom box. He burns his hand to the bone with oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid) in order to gain the day off from "work" (that is, slavery) that his plan requires.
Desperate circumstances, desperate measures.
In the freedom box, Henry endures two train rides and one on a steamboat. Despite the "This Side Up" marking on the box, he finds himself thrown around like dice.
The discomfort is almost unimaginable. Yet Henry couldn't even shift around for comfort for fear of being heard and found out.
Illustrator Kadir Nelson makes two brilliant choices on top of treating us to splendid images rendered from pencil, watercolor and oil.
1) On the cover, he places an image of young Henry, composed, staring out at us. We will never forget that the adult Henry who mailed himself to freedom was once this young being who had his childhood stolen from him at birth.
2) During the tense days when Henry is locked in the crate, Nelson renders the freedom box transparent. We see poor Henry Brown, contorted, enduring what he has to in order to reach the North.
Henry's Freedom Box is a stunning book about an awful fact of American history, and as such it deserves to be shared with white and black children alike...but not without the presence of parents. This is a book to talk about and contextualize, with deference and respect.
For adults: Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown.
Webmaster's note: Kadir Nelson won his first Caldecott the previous year for another Underground Railroad story - Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom.
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