Underground is one of those books I was taken by the first time I read it, perched at the Roaring Brook booth at ALA this summer. It’s a quiet book, but one that is worth some closer attention. The Underground of the title is the Underground Railroad and the story is written for very young readers.
Each page reads like a very early reader. This is the text in its entirety: “The darkness/The escape/We are quiet/The fear/We run/We rest/We make new friends/Others help/Some don’t make it/We are tired/We are almost there/The light/The Sun/Freedom. I am free. He is free. She is free. We are free.”
The illustrations are equally spare and powerful. Using dark and light, Evans shows the challenges the slaves faced when they decided to escape slavery, from darkness of each night on the road to the light of freedom. Computer-created collage (paint underneath drawings) is the chosen medium and it works well for this story. Though most pages are a deep midnight blue, Evans places the moon and stars, a light in the window, a torch, or the sun in most spreads to remind the reader that there is always hope, even in the darkest moments. And the final pages, bathed in yellow, let the reader know that freedom has indeed been reached.
It’s always tough to gauge when children are ready for Tough Topics—and the history of enslaved people definitely falls into that category. Evans strikes the right balance with his spare but honest illustrations and text and in telling this difficult chapter of our history for the very young.
Nonfiction doesn’t fare too well in the Caldecott voting. Early readers don’t do too well either. Difficult topics rarely sport a medal. However, this in one that an adventurous committee should debate.