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Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad

Unspoken by Henry ColeWordless 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.


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. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    First, I want to thank Robin for picking up the slack when my health issues took center stage. I ended up spending several days in the hospital with NO BOOKS. Ugh.

    Next, I am eager to see a discussion here of the whole quilt issue. Do teachers (and parents) feel strongly about NOT introducing a book like this in fear of perpetuating the myth, or could this be used in a lesson on reliable and unreliable sources?

    Then there is the award committee question. My year on Caldecott, I was pulling for a particular book whose ambiguous (but, I thought, age appropriate) fact delivery led to so much discussion that we eventually realized it just wouldn’t have enough numbers behind it in a vote. I can’t and won’t give any more away, except to say that I think the quilt issue here is more serious.

    Finally, I don’t have Unspoken in front of me, but I would imagine the text on the back cover came from marketing rather than from editorial.

  2. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    I can only speak for myself, but I do try to point out where books might mislead. I would not be afraid to introduce a book, but I would point out things that are not factual. Here is one: we learn about the Oregon Trail. Nearly every illustration in every book about the trail shows a happy family, sitting on the front of the wagon, rolling along to Oregon City. Well, the research shows that it was rare, very rare, for anyone to do anything but walk beside the oxen because a. it was really uncomfortable, b. the danger of falling off and having the wheel roll over you was a real danger and c. there was no room. So, every time one of those scenes pop up, my students have learned to point out how wrong that illustration is. Do I use the books? Sure thing.
    Now, the quilt thing is a strange legend that many people believe to be true. (that abolitionists marked their homes with quilts to let the runaways know it was a safe house and that the quilts were constructed with secret signs in the patchwork that served as a map for the runaways) There has been some scholarship debunking this myth, but common sense should allow us to question it as well. As a quilter, I have to wonder why anyone would leave a quilt outside on a scruffy old wooden fence for days at a time. (and in this book, the quilt is in the same position for what appears to be many days) It’s terrible for the quilt–the sun, the rain, the dirt, the wind all would cause serious deterioration. Second, why would you be advertising it to every slave catcher and bounty hunter in the area; surely they would have caught on to such an obvious sign. The more amazing thing is that enslaved people made it to freedom at all. Think about it: walking, mostly at night, many hundred of miles. That is the amazing story…not some trumped up story of nice white people and their magical quilts with secret signs.
    The abolitionists were taking a serious risk, that is true. But the big story should be about the risks that the runaways were taking to secure their freedom.
    That’s a long answer Lolly, I know.
    I will absolutely share this lovely book with my class. But I will also point out what I think is true and what I think is legend.
    And, I don’t think I will share the question on the back of the book. It didn’t occur to me that it was from marketing, but that makes sense to me now. I just don’t know how to make that question real to a second grader, to tell you the truth.

  3. Sam Bloom says:

    That was my first thought when you mentioned the question on the book… has to be a marketing thing. I didn’t even know that quote on the back existed, to be honest!

    By the way, I was lucky enough to be up in Dayton for their annual Mock discussions, with Floyd Dickman leading the Caldecott. We chose this as the winner. I personally would have voted for any or all 3 of the Stead books over this one (not to mention Kadir) but I certainly can understand all the love this book is getting.

  4. Sam Bloom says:

    I almost forgot; the quilt thing. I met someone at Miami U in Oxford (north of Cincinnati) who is a bit of a quilt scholar, if such a title exists. I had just been talking about how I loved a certain award winning book featuring a quilt as an important plot point and she really let me have it. Let’s just say she wasn’t having it… so I think you’re both right, that quilt could be a big, big problem for this book with the committee. Oh, to be a fly on the wall!

  5. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Did the quilt question come up in the discussion? I go back and forth with this–no child would know the legend, but a careful reader, once he or she noticed the repeated images of the napkin and Big Dipper, would definitely notice the quilt and wonder what was up with it. Now, if she brought the quilt to the storehouse, that would make sense.
    I never once thought that question was from marketing.
    What a dunce.

  6. Sam Bloom says:

    We didn’t really talk about the quilt much at the DML Mock Caldecott, but the nature of the Mock was such that there wasn’t really much large group discussion of any of the titles… it was almost entirely small group. I can tell you that one person at my table did bring it up, but I don’t think any of us noticed how often the quilt was in the book (I for one didn’t realize it ends up on the girl’s bed).

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I would be very careful about the quilt. SHOW WAY is based on Jacqueline Woodson’s oral family history, and some might argue that this book perpetuates the quilt code myth, but I don’t think a careful reading yields that conclusion. Within this particular story, we don’t know whether any of the slaves who used the quilts as maps ever escaped into freedom because of them, nor do we know if this was a widespread practice or part of the larger system of the Underground Railroad. SHOW WAY does not pretend to be a history book and really shouldn’t be read as such. It allows Woodson to honor her oral history but doesn’t venture into inaccuracy and historical speculation. I’d have to look closer at how the quilt is used in UNSPOKEN to make up my mind, but I don’t think its mere presence alone is cause for chucking it out of contention.

  8. Robin Smith says:

    Yours is the first mention of SHOW WAY, Jonathan, and I am not sure how it plays into the discussion of UNSPOKEN.
    I don’t think the quilt’s presence chucks it out of contention.
    However, its presence as a motif in the illustrations–on the fence over the course of days and then on the girl’s bed at the end –means the committee will have to decide its role in the story. It is fiction, of course, but fiction with Confederate soldiers sets it in an historical setting.

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Perhaps I came across as cranky in a way that I did not intend to, but my comment speaks to the the larger controversy surrounding slavery and quilts in children’s books (that I think we are all aware of). So my comment wasn’t really a reaction to anything said here as much as a reminder to consider the illustrations in the context of the story, not necessarily the context of the controversy.

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I also hasten to add that I while I do like UNSPOKEN, I’m not sure that it cracks my ballot either.

    And I apologize for leading with the nonsequitur discussion of SHOW WAY. It’s the quilt book that I am the most familar with obviously.

  11. Robin Smith says:

    And, what IS on your ballot right now? I know you are busy with Heavy Medal, but I bet you have 5 or 6 titles rolling around your brain. Thanks for your insights here.

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    My top three right now are probably (in no particular order) Z IS FOR MOOSE, A HOME FOR BIRD, and ISLAND. Why is nobody talking about ISLAND? But I also really like THIS IS NOT MY HAT (although I like I WANT MY HAT BACK even better–and it was my top choice last year), GREEN, EACH KINDESS, AND THEN IT’S SPRING, and OH, NO! (my overwhelming student favorite)–and I can easily be persuaded to vote for them, too. My curiosity is further piqued by SLEEP LIKE A TIGER, ONE TIMES SQUARE, and the Collier books: I, TOO, AM AMERICA and FIFTY CENTS AND A DREAM–none of which I have seen.

  13. Sam Bloom says:

    What, no Kadir?! Et tu, Jonathan?

  14. Lynn Van Auken says:

    Woodson’s book, SHOW WAY, immediately came to my mind, as well, when Robin raised the quilt issue here. (Probably because I hosted Woodson in our school in October and her work is so fresh in my mind!) I was unaware of the controversy and subsequent legendary status of the slavery-quilt story. Is this a recent development, i.e. something that has surfaced since Woodson’s book was awarded a Newbery in 2006?

    Either way, neither book purports to be nonfiction, and the Caldecott winner and honor list is chock-full of folklore. So I’m not convinced the appearance of the quilt in Cole’s book should be a point of contention.

  15. Robin Smith says:

    Actually, we are not done yet here, Sam. I am mulling over Each Kindness and Fifty Cents and a Dream. I don’t actually have the Kadir Nelson book, Sam. I thought I had it, but I don’t. I might have to rifle through the many stacks of books to double check, but I am pretty sure I do not have it. So many books, so little time.

  16. Robin Smith says:

    Thanks so much, Lynn. The quilt issue has been around for a while–SHOW WAY came out after some other books were brought to task for presenting the story as fact. The one book I am thinking of was intermediate historical fiction (I can’t think of the author or title right now, but I remember the chatter), which is a whole different thing than a picture book. Deborah Hopkinson mentions the issue in her SWEET CLARA AND THE FREEDOM QUILT–saying something to the effect (and I am going from memory here, so please please please do not quote me) that there is a legend about quilts being used as maps and as signals for safe houses but that she could find no historical evidence to support the legend. That was in 1993.
    We will never know what the committee discusses, but, if my time on the committee is any indication, every part of every page (including endpages and how the cover works with the endpages) of every book will be discussed. Things do not have to be a “point of contention,” but, since every part of the illustration is a choice, each choice will be discussed. Oh, I am jealous of all the great discussions the committee will be having
    Lynn, was Each Kindness part of Jackie Woodson’s presentation at your school? I would love to know how she talks about her most recent picture book.
    Again, thanks for writing.

  17. Sam Bloom says:

    Robin, I can’t wait to hear what you think when you get hold of Kadir’s book. As president and CEO of his fan club I’m obviously biased… but I think it is just bloody brilliant. Having said that, though, there are so many other great books this year that I really could see Kadir being blanked again. All three books involving Phillip and/or Erin Stead, this one, Green, Step Gently Out…

  18. Lynn Van Auken says:

    Thanks for helping me better understand the quilt issue, Robin. We began our Mock Caldecott unit in school this week and although I’m sure our discussions are a far-cry from the committees’ it is my favorite unit all year! We are looking at a group of 31 “contenders” and of course, my kids already love CHLOE AND THE LION and Z IS FOR MOOSE but UNSPOKEN stood out for some and my artists are drawn to WATER SINGS BLUE. We’ll spend 3 or 4 weeks reading and discussing and are excited to select our favorites and then compare them to the winners at the end of the month.

    EACH KINDNESS had just come out when Jacqueline visited, so we’d had the chance to read and discuss it together during library class before she shared it with us herself. In short, she talked about how we all have had the experience of saying or doing things we wish we could do or say differently if given a second chance, but that we don’t always get that chance. And if she had ended the book with Chloe and Maya becoming friends (or at least with Chloe having the opportunity to apologize in some way) then readers would be less likely to remember it and thus remember to “just be kind.” (My quote.)

    Jacqueline was amazing – she didn’t simply read her stories or excerpts from her novels – ‘recited’ doesn’t do it justice, ‘performed’ seems too formal – and I know it’s late on a Friday night but it really felt as if she were giving us all the gift of her story for the first time.

    Jacqueline was gracious – personally signing around 100 books for our students and teachers.

    Jacqueline was open – offering to eat lunch with any of our 8th graders who wanted to return for a second visit that day (about a third of them did) and making a point of learning and using their names while they chatted informally around the HUGE table we created for lunch in the library that day!

    If I’ve peaked your interest, check out this article that was in the Vineyard Gazette following her visit:

    As you can tell, I still get giddy remembering that day. I apologize for the huge digression, but you asked?!?

  19. Robin Smith says:

    Oh, I love to hear about wonderful author visits. Thanks. Someday when I get home (to the Cape), I will have to zip over and see you and your school. I am going to the link right now!

  20. I second Chin’s ISLAND. One of my favorites of the year too.

  21. Sam Bloom says:

    I love Island, too, but I don’t know if I’m totally on board (ha! nautical pun) with it as a Caldecott book this year. The illustrations are pretty distinguished, don’t get me wrong, but I think this is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts… at least for me.

  22. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Irrelevant but undeniably interesting is the fact that Unspoken did intend to mean by its quilt just what you all are thinking, and said so in the afterword . . . which was revised when the publisher realized the “quilt code” was more myth than history. So now the quilt in the book is left hanging overnight on the fence for no reason at all!

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