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Henry Cole’s Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad (see the Review of the Week, by Betty Carter) presented us with some very complicated questions. It’s a terrific and intriguing book, a wordless, pencil-illustrated tale of a young girl feeding and protecting a person hiding behind the cornstalks in her family’s barn; soldiers and a Confederate flag provide some context, as, of course, does the subtitle. Featured in several of the pictures is a quilt draped over the rails of the fence surrounding the family’s property. The quilt is the focus of the opening spread; later, bounty-hunters on horseback seem to see it; at the end, when the fugitive seems to have safely escaped, the quilt is on the little girl’s bed.

In case you’re wondering if this quilt is one of those quilts, the afterword in the f&g review copy said:

“One way of knowing a house was safe [for escaped slaves] was by spotting a quilt stitched in a certain pattern hanging nearby. These quilts, most notably the ‘star quilt,’ were like signposts written in code.”

Nuh-UH say historians, and in the review we duly noted the perpetuation of a myth that’s been popular in children’s books since Deborah Hopkinson’s Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, published in 1993. But then it turned out that someone at Scholastic had already been alerted to the problem, and any references to quilts were removed from the author’s note in the finished book (and removed from Betty’s review). Phew.

We are however left with the pictures of the quilt hung out to dry, as it were, its prominence now not misleading so much as inexplicable. Or does the quilt only seem prominent to me because I knew what it had been meant to mean? Lolly and Robin, over to you.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. I’m on the hold list for Unspoken, but what about Show Way? It’s all about the quilt code, and it won a Newbery Honor in 2006 (historians had weighed in by then, too). A gorgeous book, but.

  2. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    I so WISH the quilt code was true and could be documented. A quick Google search of elementary school teacher resources shows a mixed awareness. Some still teach about quilt codes as fact but I also found one that use several quilt code picture books to teach a lesson on fact checking. Robin and I haven’t talked about Unspoken yet, so stay tuned. When we do, it will provide an opportunity to discuss whether a book has to perfect in every detail in order to win an award. I personally think that award committee members can become SO detail oriented that they miss seeing the forest for the trees. Regarding Show Way, I suspect the problem there was that no one on that particular committee was aware of the quilt code controversy.

  3. pace pace says:

    Why , Oh why am I not able to email this article?
    Really, I need an answer.

    Thank you.

  4. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    pace pace –

    I’m guessing you are trying to email via those little icons above the comments. There seems to be a glitch with the one that lets you send by “Any mail.” Until they fix it, I think your best bet is to click on the little printer icon instead. That should take you to a window where you have the option to print OR email. I got it to work just now.

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