Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad

By Henry Cole. Scholastic Press, 2012. 38 pages. $16.99/hardcover. Recommended for ages 6 and up.

Unspoken is an unusual book. It’s entirely wordless and the full‐page illustrations are soft pencil sketches on a cream background, inviting children to slow down, quiet themselves, and look carefully. There are lots of details to pick out, and many of them contribute to the story. The story itself is quite simple: A girl living in the U.S. South during the days of the Confederacy discovers an escaped slave hiding in a shed on her family’s farm. At first, she is frightened, then she helps the hidden guest, and finally finds a gift of thanks.

Although the story is simple, the fact that children have to discover it for themselves invites them to think more critically about what’s going on. Some things are never made clear, allowing the viewer to ask questions, look for clues, and find multiple ways to interpret the events depicted. What changes the girl’s attitude from fear to pity? Does her family know about the refugee in their shed? The escaped slave is never shown, leaving the imagination to determine whether this hidden person is a man or a woman, old or young.

I think this book would be lovely to share with a lower elementary child just beginning to learn about the Underground Railroad. And even though it is a picture book, upper elementary children might also enjoy looking at its pages. Instead of giving facts or statistics, the story invites us to remember that history is made up of the people who lived it. Because the pictures reward close examination, it’s probably better to share one‐on‐one or with a very small group of children, unless the pictures can be enlarged and projected for all to see clearly. This book is appropriate for ages 6 and up, but more important than the age is that the child has been introduced to at least a little of the history of slavery, the Underground Railroad, and the Civil War. Sometimes, this lesson does not occur until second or third grade.

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