Review: Unspoken by Henry Cole
Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad
By Henry Cole
In Stores Nov. 1, 2012
Sometimes, when the stars align, an illustrator delivers a statement in the form of a book. Jerry Pinkney did it in 2009 with The Lion & the Mouse. Brian Selznick did it in 2007 with The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Henry Cole’s beautiful Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad shares elements of both books. Like the nearly wordless The Lion & the Mouse, Unspoken allows the illustrations to tell the tale. And similar to The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the moving artwork is created entirely in pencil. The story is simple, yet powerful. Are you ready for a late entry into the 2013 Caldecott race? Forget October – consider this your November surprise.
The Civil War is on and slaves are fleeing the south for freedom in the northern states. On one Virginia farm, a girl’s routine trip to the barn reveals something unexpected. Rather, someone unexpected. A visitor, using corn stalks for cover, hiding out from pursuers. The girl is startled, but understanding. She soon returns to bring food to her guest. After narrowly avoiding trouble during a visit from bounty hunters, the girl returns to the barn to find it unoccupied. But the visitor has left a token of gratitude.
There was a moment, when I first opened the cover, that I was worried Unspoken would be a story of “brave white girl rescues helpless slave – isn’t she great???”. But it soon became clear that Cole was going to handle things with more subtlety than I was fearful of. The relationship and events that unfold don’t feel forced into a cloying racial narrative – they come off as honest.
The illustrations are created with pencil and paper – nothing more. The amount of detail is striking. Cole’s ability to create tension and mystery (with the use of some first-rate shading work), while moving the story forward is impressive. The whole book has a cinematic quality, with wide two page spreads.
This is what can happen when an established illustrator makes a book close to his heart. It feels like a statement. An excellent jumping off point for Civil War and Underground Railroad studies. Readers won’t soon forget it.
Review copy from the publisher.
Also reviewed by Julie Danielson at Kirkus.
About Travis Jonker
Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.
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