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Review: Unspoken by Henry Cole

Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad
By Henry Cole

Scholastic Press

ISBN: 9780545399975
Grades K-3
In Stores Nov. 1, 2012

*Best New Book*

Find it at:
Schuler Books | Your Library

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 scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. Oh, this looks lovely. I need to get my hands on it.

    Incidentally, Henry himself is a lovely person. He visited our libraries last year, and he is perfectly charming as a presenter and a guest.

  2. Sounds amazing. I’m used to Henry Cole’s more colorful kind of zany illustrations like he did for Chicken Butt by Erica S. Perl. This is such a different style for him but looks amazing. Looking forward to reading it!

  3. This book is a brilliant way of bringing history to life, and one that I personally want to keep once the kids have grown up. It gets another review here: http://www.tidy-books.co.uk/blog/win-breathtaking-kids-book-unspoken-henry-cole/

  4. “This is what can happen when an established illustrator makes a book close to his heart.’ That’s a really great way to describe this really great book. Nice review.


  1. […] my eye on Unspoken for a little while, having had my attention drawn to it by blogger and librarian 100 Scope Notes, and the New York Times picks of 2012.  The book was tipped by many to be a Caldecott winner, but […]