Unspoken

Cover

Written and Illustrated by Henry Cole

Scholastic Press, 2012

The plot in a nutshell: A girl helps a runaway slave.

This story is set during the Civil War.  A young girl on a farm hears a sound coming from the corn crib in the barn and sees a frightened eye looking back at her from behind the corn. She runs back to her house, but doesn’t tell anyone what she saw. Instead, she wraps up some food in a piece of cloth and leaves it in the barn. The next day, lawmen come to the house, asking if anyone has seen an escaped slave. The girl watches them leave and returns to the barn, only to find a small corn husk doll dressed in the cloth she had used for the food.

Author/illustrator Henry Cole cites his childhood in Virginia as the inspiration for this moving and beautiful wordless story.  In a note in the back of the book, he tells about his elderly relatives who would tell stories about the Civil War. He also explains that he wanted to write a story about the courage of ordinary people in this extraordinary time in America’s history, which is one of the elements I love most about this book. Anyone reading this book can imagine themselves in this girl’s shoes and recognize the bravery she shows in choosing to help the person hiding in her barn.

Her facial expression tells us that she can't stop thinking about the person in the barn.

Her facial expression tells us that she can’t stop thinking about the person in the barn.

The artwork is in pencil on charcoal paper, with a brilliant use of light, shading and dimension that makes each picture a new revelation. All we ever see of the person hiding in the barn is one eye and I have never seen so much emotion in such a little glimpse of a person. I love that the girl’s facial expression goes from frightened to worried to content once she has brought some food to the barn, showing that she knows she is doing the right thing. The inclusion of a quilt on the fence on the dedication page seems like a nod to the legend of a Quilt Code in the Underground Railroad, showing the friendly houses where runaway slaves could safely hide, indicating that her family was sympathetic to the cause as well. This is a wonderful example of how a wordless book can pack so much more into pictures than words could ever manage.

And what did we learn?  What I take away from this book is that there is a sense of right and wrong that transcends the law and your heart usually knows what to do.

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2 thoughts on “Unspoken

  1. this is a wonderful book even with out words the pic say so much I think this book would make a wonderful y play for a class of children to put on as a project rich history and soulful

    • I agree – it would make a cool play. I have become a real fan of wordless picture books when they can tell such a moving story in pictures.

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