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
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.
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Roger Sutton

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!

Posted : Jan 15, 2013 08:45

Sam Bloom

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.

Posted : Jan 06, 2013 03:30

Monica Edinger

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

Posted : Jan 06, 2013 11:02

Robin Smith

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! Thanks!

Posted : Jan 05, 2013 04:18

Lynn Van Auken

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: http://mvgazette.com/news/2012/10/23/author-jacqueline-woodson-enchants-oak-bluffs-students As you can tell, I still get giddy remembering that day. I apologize for the huge digression, but you asked?!?

Posted : Jan 05, 2013 03:49

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