Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Unspoken: a Story From the Underground Railroad
Unspoken: a Story From the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole, 2012.
Although Henry Cole has illustrated more than fifty books, I knew about his artwork from some of his previous titles such as the Katy Duck books, the Chicken Butt books, the Big Chickens books, and The Sissy Duckling by Harvey Fierstein. They are fun and silly, so I was surprised to see that he has conceived and illustrated Unspoken, a book unlike any of his others that I have seen.
Unspoken is a wordless picture book about a young farm girl who finds and helps a runaway slave. It has a simple plot that delivers great emotional impact. While doing her chores the girl discovers the stranger hiding in the corn crib, and later sneaks food into the barn. After some time, men come looking for the traveler, but, with no information, are forced to leave empty handed. When the child returns to the barn, she finds that the visitor has gone, leaving her a corn dolly. In an author's note following the story, Cole describes his childhood home in Virginia and the stories that his aged relatives would tell of the Civil War and how it impacted the people and the land. He tells about the way escaped slaves used the North Star near the Big Dipper as a way to navigate to freedom and the brave people of the south who provided "safe houses" for the travelers and fed and sheltered them. Cole says that he chose to make this a wordless book so that readers can make the story their own and fill in the conversations themselves.
Cole's graphite illustrations on sepia backgrounds well convey the girl's emotions, from trepidation as she protectively cuddles her cat when she first sees the soldiers, to uneasiness and fear when she finds the stranger, to contentment as she holds her new doll as she lies in bed watching the Big Dipper. The gender of the runaway is never determined; we see only an eye peeking out of the stack of corn, enabling readers to imagine what they choose. This outstanding story of kindness and friendship will certainly find an audience with readers of all ages.