book review: Henry’s Freedom Box

title : Henry’s Freedom Box: A true story from the Underground Railroad
author: Ellen Levine
illustrator: Kadir Nelson
date: Scholastic 2007
non-fiction picture book


Actually, I watched the dvd of Henry’s Freedom Box. This adaptation of the book engages artistic camera angles to bring Kadir Nelson’s artwork to live. This dvd enriches the story with interviews and teaching materials. The dvd follows the book word for word, providing readers a way to build their reading abilities, a way for visual learners in particular to enter the story.

The story begins here.

Henry Brown wasn’t sure how old he was.
Henry was a slave. And slaves weren’t allowed to know their birthday.

I prefer the author to have stated “Henry was enslaved.” A slave is an object while an enslaved person in a human being with a condition placed upon them. For the most part, we only know enslaved people through movies and books and rarely there do we see a full range of emotions, intelligence, artistry, physical limitations or anything that develops them beyond a cardboard image, a slave. Henry was enslaved.

Young readers will empathize with a boy who doesn’t even know when his birthday is. He was yelled at, poked, beaten and lied to. His mother prepared Henry for the pain he would face, but this didn’t lessen the sting. Levine too, prepares her readers for the pain. She writes

But Henry’s mother knew things could change. “Do you see those leaves blowing in the wind? They are torn from the trees like slave children are torn from their families.”

Henry marries, has children. Nelson’s images reflect the firelight in the cIMG_1285hildren’s hearts
rather than in their eyes and faces.

Pages later, they are sold away never to be seen again.

What happens next is based upon Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself. In the re-telling of Henry’s resistive act of running away, readers are shown that not all Whites were bad, that Whites were in fact important in helping Henry’s carry out his plan to escape. Henry finally had a birthday and it was 30 March, 1849, the day he emerged from the box. Even more of the story is available from the author on the dvd.

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