Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book #365: Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole

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This eloquent wordless book focuses on the friendship between a young Southern farm girl and a runaway slave hidden in the family’s corn crib. No words are spoken between the two friends, but the girl leaves a checkered napkin each night with a bit of food. Although the Civil War is raging, Confederate soldiers abound, and men come in search of the slave, the girl and her family say not a word. Eventually the runaway slave leaves, but he or she leaves behind a small doll fashioned from a checkered napkin. This book shows that unspoken words can be just as powerful as those shouted from the roof tops.

Completely rendered in pencil on thick tan paper, Cole’s illustrations are full of emotion. The story is told from the young girl’s perspective and her fear heightens the suspense and danger of hiding a fugitive slave. The detail in the beautiful two page spreads is impressive. Small elements – the grain of the wooden door, the fold of the checkered napkin – bring life on a farm during the American Civil War to life. Cole deftly defines dark from light, day from night with amazingly precise shading and hatching. The overall effect is stunning. The book concludes with an author’s note about the historical events that inspired this book.

Use this book as part of a history lesson on slavery in the US and/or the American Civil War. When you read the book point out elements that ground the story in the historical setting, such as the Confederate flag carried by the soldiers, the wanted poster, and the lanterns. There aren’t any men or women living on the farm who look young enough to be the girl’s parents, discuss the idea that they might be soldiers, doctors/nurses, spies, etc. in the war.

If your working with independent readers, pair this book with Brian Selznick’s middle grade books, Wonderstruck or The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Selznick and Cole both use pencil to create their illustrations; how are their styles different or the same? What do you learn from the illustrations that might be hard to convey in words?  

In the author’s note Cole encourages readers to write the words for this story to make it their own, “filling in all that has been unspoken.” Encourage kids to create their own text individually or in small groups. You could also have each child write the text for one illustration and then pass it on to the next person to continue the story and so on.

Read more about Cole and the creation of this book in this Q&A from Publishers Weekly.


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