Thursday, June 21, 2007

Henry's Freedom Box

Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story of the Underground Railroad
by Ellen Levine
Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Scholastic Press 2007
ISBN: 978-0-439-77733-9

One of my colleagues found this book at the Scholastic Book Fair. In our Virginia history textbook it mentions a person who mailed himself to freedom. Henry “Box” Brown became a famous runaway slave during the time of the Underground Railroad. My friend was thrilled when she found this book—a more in depth look at the life of this person who only garnered one line in the history book. He now gets his story read to fourth graders, courtesy of Ellen Levine’s book.

This is a fictionalized biography, but Levine creates such an emotion in this book. I read it to my fourth graders and they were taken aback, stricken with grief, and amazed at the story of this man.

Henry Brown was a slave. He was separated from his family at a young age when his master became ill. Then he married another slave who had a different owner. He was concerned that their children would be sold—and they were. His wife and his children were sold. Ellen Levine’s striking prose told it like this, “Henry couldn’t move. He couldn’t think. He could work. ‘Twist that tobacco!’ The boss poked Henry. Henry twisted the tobacco leaves. His heart twisted in his chest.”

Henry Brown found some men who disagreed with slavery who helped him devise a plan to mail him to freedom.

Levine tells the journey in the box in great detail. Kadir Nelson’s artwork really shows how squished Henry would have been. The only thing I wondered was—how did he go to the bathroom? He was only in the box for twenty-seven hours, but I still wondered.

All of my students were amazed at all that Henry went through—especially losing his family. They realized how cruel it all truly was. The book says when Henry’s family is sold, he knew he’d never see them again. And in the book he doesn’t. My students were expecting a happy ending where he meets up with his family again. The author’s note didn’t give that hope either. I think it was a horrifying awakening for them to see that many of the slaves who’s families were separated never reunited.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is studying the Underground Railroad and wants children to be drawn in to the emotions and reality of this time in history.

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