Book Report: Unspoken: A Story From the Underground Railroad

unspoken_111-495x436Unspoken: A Story From the Underground Railroad
Author-Illustrator Henry Cole
Scholastic Press, 2012

First of all, my reader, please don’t take anything in this book report as negative. I love this book! The marketing folks at Scholastic mailed it to me, I’m supposing, because they consider it a diversity book. And we are a diversity website.

Initially, however, I argued with myself over whether Unspoken was a diversity book at all. The book gave me pause. I mean, it’s an Underground Railroad story. Enslaved African Americans used the Underground Railroad to escape north to freedom. But I didn’t see any African American’s pictured in this book — well, except for an eyeball. And I didn’t realize, having not read the cover flap copy or the Author’s Note, that it was an African American eyeball.

In Unspoken, a Civil War-era farm girl discovers a runaway slave hiding in a barn. At first the young girl is frightened and runs off. But her conscience sends her back to the barn with food. When slave catchers arrive, does she tell? No, her good sense of humanity would not allow her to do that. The favor is returned by the runaway at the end of the story with a very special gift.

This book was a huge undertaking on Cole’s part – and a risk – in my opinion. For one, you have a white author-illustrator telling a story of Black history. Now in all fairness, it’s not only Black history, it’s American history. The subject of slavery and the Civil War is not a Black thing. But while white authors publish these stories about slavery and the Underground Railroad all the time (all the time . . .  all the time . .  . all the time), for many African Americans, the subject still carries unhealed wounds. That Cole chose to tell the story while visually omitting the Black runaway was brilliant storytelling, but it could have just as easily backfired. I’m glad it didn’t. I’m glad it has been so well received (deservingly so). But I have to wonder, just a wee little bit, if picturing the slave would have made the story any less successful.

Of course, I’m coming at this from knowing my history. I know the enslaved person hiding behind the cornstalks in the barn is African American. But will a 6-year-old know that? Is it important to that 6-year-old to know the race of the runaway? Um, I think so, but that’s me. The book will surly conjure up interesting classroom discussions.

Cole’s bold graphite drawings on antique color paper add to the authentic feel of this story. Study this book and return to it time and again. Excellent visual storytelling, I’m an artist, I get it. And, yes, it is a diversity book, in my humble opinion. The Civil War and slavery was experienced from a variety of vantage points. In this story, we get a glimpse from a slightly different point of view than what we are used to seeing. Will make for great discussions in the classroom.

3 thoughts on “Book Report: Unspoken: A Story From the Underground Railroad

  1. I must say, I was surprised when I saw a Caucasian girl on the cover.My next thought was, are the illustrations done in pencil? It makes me want to read it more…I wonder if Henry Cole will be at the next book fair??

  2. I found this book to be beautiful and well-written. And yes, it is a risk to tell the story this way, but as you say, it is American history, not just black history. There were many different perspectives.

  3. I wondered about this book too. I haven’t seen it yet so I am still wondering. In one sense it is the subject of slavery from a white girl’s pov, with a white child’s dilemma. We don’t talk much about it but white kids get indoctrinated into the status quo, and accepting slavery as normal and just is a kind of violence too. So showing a white girl struggling with the moral dilemma is an important part of the history. I’m wondering about the text… would Cole take the risk of putting that into words? Would that work? Will the 6 year olds that read it be able to make the association to the many ways we currently have to learn to accept the status quo?

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