Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad
by Henry Cole; illus. by the author
Primary Scholastic 40 pp.
11/12 978-0-545-39997-5 $16.99
This wordless picture book opens with a calm scene: a quilt hangs over a rural split-rail fence. A young girl enters the scene on the next double-page spread, leading a cow and watching a small group of Confederate infantry ride by. The girl continues with her daily chores, including gathering potatoes from the root cellar, where, behind the cut cornstalks stored there, she glimpses an eye, signaling that someone is hiding amongst them. Time passes; surreptitiously, the girl leaves food for the fugitive. The family gathers for a meal; bounty hunters searching for a runaway slave appear — and then leave. Frightened, the girl runs to check on the escapee and discovers that he or she has gone — leaving her a handmade cornhusk doll. What Cole shows so superbly through his accomplished yet unpretentious pencil art — the ideal medium for the book, as it looks as if it’s of the era as well as portraying the era — is the keeping of secrets. The entire family appears to know what’s going on, but the extent of each character’s involvement is never made explicit; it is conveyed by body language alone, particularly in the exaggerated movements of those who believe they are being watched, their averted eyes when facing the bounty hunters, and the various hands that bring food to the fugitive slave. The back jacket, with an arresting close-up of the young heroine, personalizes the experience by asking young readers: “What would you do if you had the chance to help a person find freedom?”
From the November/December 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.