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Ellen Levine book reviews

Ellen Levine Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad; illus. by Kadir Nelson
40 pp. Scholastic 1/07 ISBN 978-0-439-77733-9 $16.99 g
(Primary, Intermediate)

Watch author Ellen Levine read from the 2008 Caldecott Honor book.

In a true story that is both heartbreaking and joyful, Levine recounts the history of Henry “Box” Brown, born into slavery. Henry works in a tobacco factory, marries another slave, and fathers three children; but then his family is sold, and Henry realizes he will never see them again. With nothing to lose, Henry persuades his friend James and a sympathetic white man to mail him in a wooden box to Philadelphia and freedom. Levine maintains a dignified, measured tone, telling her powerful story through direct, simple language. A note at the end explains the historical basis for the fictionalized story. Accompanying Levine’s fine, controlled telling are pencil, watercolor, and oil paint illustrations by Kadir Nelson that resonate with beauty and sorrow. When Henry’s mother holds him as a child on her lap, they gaze out at bright autumn leaves, and the tenderness is palpable, even as she calls to his attention the leaves that “are torn from the trees like slave children are torn from their families.” There is no sugarcoating here, and Henry is not miraculously reunited with his wife and children; however, the conclusion, as Henry celebrates his new freedom, is moving and satisfying.

Ellen Levine A Fence Away from Freedom: Japanese Americans and World War II
260 pp. Putnam 10/95 ISBN 0-399-22638-9 18.95

“After Pearl Harbor, the teachers would never say we were American citizens. Not one of them.” Since the 1988 Civil Liberties Act authorized redress payments for the surviving Japanese Americans evacuated to World War II internment camps, several children’s books have recounted this sorry episode in American history. Ellen Levine adds substantially to our understanding of the human experience of citizens suddenly made outcasts. Her carefully constructed account is based on in-depth interviews with thirty-five individuals who were children or teenagers when the bombing of Pearl Harbor dramatically altered their lives. Their recollections are broken into chronological and topical chunks interspersed with the author’s explanations of wartime events and camp life. These personal stories of displacement form a powerful sense of the pain and injustice rendered. The emotional resonance of the personal histories, along with the detailed information about camp life, politics, and postwar events, makes the book a rich resource. The drabness of the black-and white photographs is the only detraction from this compelling presentation. Appended material includes a glossary, a chronology, acronyms, a map, biographies, a bibliography, and an index.

Ellen Levine Darkness over Denmark: The Danish Resistance and the Rescue of the Jews
164 pp. Holiday 3/00 ISBN 0-8234-1447-7 18.95
(Middle School)

Ellen Levine’s account rescues Denmark’s heroic role in saving its Jewish population during the Holocaust from becoming a cliché. Debunking the romantic myth that everyone in Denmark wore a Star of David when the Germans demanded it of the Jewish population (a story that Levine says never happened), Levine concentrates her energies on the true-life dramas of twenty-one people she interviewed. At the time of the Nazi takeover of Denmark in 1940, several of them were as young as two years old, none older than twenty-eight. Their stories alternate with the history of the war as it affected Denmark and the rest of Europe. In a moving preface that acknowledges Levine’s ultimate inability to answer the question “Why did the Danes act the way they did?” she nonetheless quotes political philosopher Edmund Burke, who said, “The one condition necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” This book largely chronicles the good men, women, and children of Denmark whose large and small acts of resistance saved almost the entire population of eight thousand Danish Jews. One stunning picture shows eight arrested members of the Churchill Club—whose membership consisted of eleven boys, aged fourteen to seventeen—each wearing an identifying prison number. Levine quotes a newspaper account of one of them: “If you older folks will do nothing, we will have to do something instead.” Levine works assiduously to document her stories, and to round out the portrait of a brave nation with the reality f its own Nazi membership, its traitors, and its failed attempts at rescue as well as its successes. In addition to source notes, a bibliography, and an excellent chronology that highlights events specific to Denmark, Levine includes a “Who’s Who Continued,” which tells what happened to each of her interviewees after the war.

Ellen Levine Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories
A 1994 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award Winner
167 pp. Putnam 1993 ISBN 0-399-21893-9
This compilation of thirty oral histories of young African Americans involved in the civil-rights movement, collected through extensive interviews, is a unique approach to the history of that time. Illustrated with black-and-white photographs, the dramatic and tragic stories of the lives of ordinary folk under segregation make compelling reading. Brief biographies of the presenters add to the usefulness of the volume. Bib., ind.


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