Wordless picture books have a special place in Caldecott history. None of those pesky words get in the way and there is no worry about designing the page for text boxes, either. One vision is on the page–the vision of the illustrator. The only words in this book are a question on the back cover and the lengthy author’s note at the end where Henry Cole tells of his childhood in Loudon County, Virginia and of the stories his relatives told of the Civil War.
A young girl, walking her cow, comes upon a group of soldiers on horseback, carrying a Confederate flag. Later, while doing her chores, she sees a person (well, just the person’s eye) hiding in the cornstalks in the storehouse. The little girl brings food to the person and eventually learns that slave catchers are looking for an escaped slave. Eventually, the person leaves, but not before leaving a cornhusk dolls as a thank you.
Unspoken has been making a splash with reviewers over the past few months. The pencil strokes! The lighting! The tension! Each page is like a vignette, frozen in time. I found myself slowing down to read each scene, especially concentrating on the facial expressions of each character. The angry slave catchers face the bored, tired looks on the adults’ faces. The little girl always looks a bit nervous and anxious, her eyes and body always leaning toward the storehouse. The paper choice–cream-colored heavy stock–adds to the serious feel. The blue-framed pages let the reader understand the pace and give the reader a little respite from the black and white and cream. The full-bleed pages, mostly close-ups, invite the reader to think about the little girl and the tough decisions she has to make. There are other details to appreciate–the dress on the doll is actually one of the napkins used to protect the food. The Big Dipper is visible in the night sky, reminding readers of slaves escaping to the north. It’s a shame that the much-debunked legend of quilts is given a visual nod here–it’s hanging on the fence on the dedication page and is pictured in a number of later pages, including the final page, where it is back on the little girl’s bed. The back cover directly addresses the reader with the girl’s huge eyes and the question, “What would you do if you had the chance to help a person find freedom?”
I am not sure why this powerful story needed that last question. The criteria say, “Each book is to be considered as a picture book. The committee is to make its decision primarily on the illustration, but other components of a book are to be considered especially when they make a book less effective as a children’s picture book. Such other components might include the written text, the overall design of the book, etc.” I do know that lots of teachers will not give a flip about the criteria–they will welcome this gentle, serious, beautiful book that will lead to many important classroom discussions. But the committee will not give a flip about that.