Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad was written by Ellen Levine and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Together, Levine and Nelson have created a masterpiece. Levine is able to tell Henry’s story with simple poetic language and Nelson’s art extends the story that is not conveyed through text. He uses crosshatched pencil, water color, and oil paintings. His artistic style creates emotional scenes that convey the depth of Henry’s emotions throughout the story. It is a heart wrenching story about love, loss, and bravery.
The story begins with Henry as a young slave. Nelson portrays Henry sitting on his mother’s lap watching the autumn leaves falling from the trees. 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 this illustration, Nelson is able to portray closeness, a bond, between a mother and a child. Henry’s mother knew she had to prepare herself and her son for the inevitable.
Henry was taken from his mother and he began working in a tobacco factory. Nelson does an amazing job with every turn of the page; you see the successive development as he grows over time. He was able to move on with his life as he grew into an adult. He married and had three children. One evening Henry’s wife, Nancy, conveyed her fears of losing her children. Her slave owner had lost a great deal of money. She said, “I’m afraid he will sell our children.” The next double page spread shows the side view of Henry’s head. His head takes up three-fourths of the spread, drawing the reader into his mind. We begin to have his thoughts. What can he do? How will he be able to protect his children?
Nancy and Henry’s worst fears came true. However, it wasn’t just the children, Nancy was taken too. They were taken to town and sold at an auction. Henry was helpless. There wasn’t anything he could do. Nelson’s powerful illustration of this scene is heartbreaking. Nelson uses line, shape and color to extend the story. From the gutter there is a very large and bold line going at an angle from the middle of the page extending to the bottom right corner of the page. This is the top of the wooden trailer that is being used to cart off Henry’s family. There is also a very large curved wheel that is bold right through the center of the gutter and onto the left page. Nelson used these lines to direct our attention and focus our eye. He has created a sense of motion and tension through these lines. These are center stage and up close to show the significance of this event.
Henry was dying inside. His family, what he lived for, had been taken away forever. Henry devised a plan to be shipped in a wooden crate from Richmond, VA to Philadelphia, PA. He asked a friend and an abolitionist Dr. to help execute the plan. Amazingly, it worked! Henry arrived in PA on March 30, 1849.
As I read the story I kept wondering how he survived. How long it took? How many miles? Would he find his family? There is an author’s note in the back of the book that provides answers to the many questions the reader has.
This was an exceptional book! In my opinion, this book is a great example of an author and illustrator working together to convey an incredible story about Henry Brown's journey to freedom. The illustrations in this book will forever be etched in my mind. A Masterpiece!
If you would like to watch an interview with Ellen Levine about this book click here.