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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.


Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.



  1. Last year I thought to myself, “In an ideal world, Amos McGee will take home the gold… it’s beautiful, timeless, a perfect marriage of illustration and text. But there’s no way a committee could agree on it being the best of the year.” Obviously – and thankfully – I was wrong! This year, I’m thinking the same thing about this book. The spread(s? I don’t have the book in front of me) at the end, when the family finally reaches freedom… wow. What an amazing use of contrast. Brilliant book. Maybe it will win the Caldecott, Geisel, and both CSK awards! (Well, I’m on a roll – might as well not bother with reality at this point, right?!??!)

  2. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Well, we can dream, right?
    I love the scratchy paint (I know there must be a better way to describe this) and the way the eyes, though simply drawn, compel me to think about each character.

  3. Ooh yes, you’re so right about the eyes! Especially the “We rest” spread – love that Dad’s eyes are the only eyes we can see. Also, love love love the lighting and expression on “The light” spread…

  4. Dean Schneider says:

    For me, the cover itself is the most compelling illustration. And it’s the apparent simplicity of the illustrations throughout the book and the simple text that are so memorable. When I first read UNDERGROUND, I wondered about the sketchiness of the illustrations, an almost unfinished quality to them, but now that seems appropriate somehow–unfinished like their journey from page to page. When a book is so spare, it lends itself to interpretation, to finding meanings beyond or behind what’s given. Light is light, but it’s also hope or help or goodness or…freedom. What a great double-page spread to end the volume…basking in the light. A memorable work.

  5. I loved this book, the rich color, and really appreciate the importance of another way to share on the topic of our fellow human beings being enslaved. I don’t know if I’m ready for my 5 year old to experience that fear and pain. The question of when to introduce the idea to him that many people have a problem with people whose skin is any shade other than white occupies a great deal of thought and discussion at our house.

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  1. […] Coretta Scott King (Illustrator) Book Award for Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom (covered here at Calling Caldecott in mid-December), released in January of last year. If I were organized, […]

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