Cover image for Unspoken : a story from the Underground Railroad
Unspoken : a story from the Underground Railroad
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Scholastic Press, 2012.
Physical Description:
1 v. (unpaged) : ill. ; 26 x 29 cm.
Reading Level:
NP L Lexile
In this wordless picture book, a young Southern farm girl discovers a runaway slave hiding behind the corn crib in the barn and decides to help him.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book EASY COL 1 2
Book EASY COL 1 1
Book EASY COL 1 1
Book EASY COL 1 1
Book EASY COL 0 1

On Order



A young girl's courage is tested in this haunting, wordless story.When a farm girl discovers a runaway slave hiding in the barn, she is at once startled and frightened. But the stranger's fearful eyes weigh upon her conscience, and she must make a difficult choice.Will she have the courage to help him?Unspoken gifts of humanity unite the girl and the runaway as they each face a journey: one following the North Star, the other following her heart. Henry Cole's unusual and original rendering of the Underground Railroad speaks directly to our deepest sense of compassion.

Author Notes

Henry Cole has illustrated more than fifty books for children including The Leprechaun's Gold by Pamela Duncan Edwards, Little Bo by Julie Andrews, and On Meadow Street, which he wrote. His first novel was A Nest for Celeste.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

Cole's (A Nest for Celeste) beautifully detailed pencil drawings on cream-colored paper deftly visualize a family's ruggedly simple lifestyle on a Civil War-era homestead, while facing stark, ethical choices. Beginning with an illustration of a star-patterned quilt hanging over a fence (such quilts, Cole writes in his author's note, signified a "safe house" for runaway slaves), the wordless story follows a girl who becomes aware of someone hiding in the barn. In one scene, she glances nervously over her shoulder at an unexpected noise; the next shows a closeup of cornhusks, a frightened eye peering through; the girl dashes from the barn in terror in a third illustration. After pondering her discovery, she stealthily delivers food wrapped in a checkered napkin on multiple occasions. Household adults are none the wiser, and following a close call with a pair of bounty hunters, the girl returns to the barn and discovers a cornhusk doll, left behind as thanks. Cole conjures significant tension and emotional heft (his silent storytelling calls to mind Brian Selznick's recent work) in this powerful tale of quiet camaraderie and courage. Ages 3-7. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Horn Book Review

This wordless picture book opens with a calm scene: a quilt hangs over a rural split-rail fence. A young girl enters the scene on the next double-page spread, leading a cow and watching a small group of Confederate infantry ride by. The girl continues with her daily chores, including gathering potatoes from the root cellar, where, behind the cut cornstalks stored there, she glimpses an eye, signaling that someone is hiding amongst them. Time passes; surreptitiously, the girl leaves food for the fugitive. The family gathers for a meal; bounty hunters searching for a runaway slave appear -- and then leave. Frightened, the girl runs to check on the escapee and discovers that he or she has gone -- leaving her a handmade cornhusk doll. What Cole shows so superbly through his accomplished yet unpretentious pencil art -- the ideal medium for the book, as it looks as if its of the era as well as portraying the era -- is the keeping of secrets. The entire family appears to know whats going on, but the extent of each characters involvement is never made explicit; it is conveyed by body language alone, particularly in the exaggerated movements of those who believe they are being watched, their averted eyes when facing the bounty hunters, and the various hands that bring food to the fugitive slave. The back jacket, with an arresting close-up of the young heroine, personalizes the experience by asking young readers: What would you do if you had the chance to help a person find freedom? betty carter (c) Copyright 2012. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Booklist Review

From the title on, silence and secrets create stirring drama in this wordless picture book about a child who helps a runaway slave escape. The full-page charcoal-and-pencil drawings in sepia tones show the girl busy with her chores on her family's farm. Then she glimpses someone watching her in the barn. She barely sees the runaway; the pictures show just an eye. She never speaks with the hidden figure, but she leaves food, wrapped in cloth, even as terrifying, armed slave hunters on horseback show her family a poster: Wanted. Escaped. Reward. Then the fugitive disappears in the night, but the girl finds a doll made from the star-patterned cloth that covered the food she had brought. At the story's end, the girl lies in bed watching the stars in the night sky. A long afterword adds context to the historical setting, and children will be moved to return to the images many times and fill in their own words.--Rochman, Hazel Copyright 2010 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

BEFORE I picked up "Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America," I moderated a panel called "When Work Disappears," comprising an interracial group of lawyers, economists and a journalist turned television producer. And on the whole, the opinions and evidence we shared left the audience, as well as myself, in a "slough of despond." Every aspect painted a bleak picture of African-Americans, including the tragic status of children living in poverty (38 percent); schools ill-equipped to meet students' most basic needs; the disproportionate numbers in prison, most on relatively minor charges; and a rate of unemployment double that of whites. In short: The American dream for African-Americans - especially young men - is for now and the foreseeable future an American nightmare. With this in mind, I read the preface to "Hand in Hand," which begins, in part, Gripped iron courage to withstand: Degradation Segregation Humiliation Hard frustration. The author, Andrea Davis Pinkney, who is also a poet, explains that what motivated her to write the book was not least her despair over "ignorant stereotyping of black males" and "the negative impact this has, especially on boys who are developing their self-image." "Even in its subtlest forms," she says, "this 'bad press' can stitch a corrosive thread into a kid's psyche and cause him to believe he is inferior or flawed. Once this belief is established, it can be hard to turn around." In her brief but uplifting accounts of 10 black men - Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, A. Philip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Barack Obama - Pinkney draws lessons aimed at unstitching that "corrosive thread." And she demonstrates in a variety of ways how black men with challenges as great as, if not greater than, those young black men face today beat the odds and used their talents to help others. Some, like Frederick Douglass, felt the lash of enslavers but refused to be "broken," becoming a powerful force to end slavery. Similarly, Booker T. Washington grew up in a slave cabin, eating leftover slop fed to pigs, and often went to sleep hungry. But when he was nearly 6 years old and made to carry the books of children of the white family his mother worked for, he lingered under the classroom window, taking in what was being taught from those books. "It was like a breeze on a hot-as-blazes day. Booker couldn't help but let it blow." It took a long time, but that breeze eventually carried Washington through school and to the Tuskegee Institute, one of the first colleges for African-Americans in the country. Pinkney also provides details of Thurgood Marshall's early years when he was a cutup in school; for punishment, he was often sent to the school basement, forced each time to learn a passage of the Constitution. Marshall eventually channeled that energy and accumulated knowledge into the fight for equality. He went on to become the driving force behind the Supreme Court's Brown decision in 1954 that paved the way for thousands of black children, including me, to get an education equal to that of whites. Martin Luther King is one of the few heroes most young people know from the civil rights movement. But Pinkney describes some of the lesser-known factors that helped shape his consciousness, including his being forced to travel 90 miles standing in a bus after giving up his seat to whites. It was through education that all 10 men not only survived but conquered. For many of them, however, education didn't always come in the traditional ways. Sometimes it was with the help of family, especially black mothers. For example, Banneker was born free, but had no formal schooling. His grandmother taught him to read the only book she owned, the Bible. "Benjamin learned everything from the begats to the Beatitudes. And by reciting all 150 psalms, Benjamin discovered he could count." He went on to "master the sky's mysteries," ultimately creating a widely heralded farmer's almanac "with everything that was essential to a farmer's success." At the other extreme, Pinkney profiles Detroit Red, a young criminal who used and sold drugs, stole from people and experienced the stink and isolation of a prison cell. But with positive mentors in and out of prison who stressed salvation, Detroit Red became Malcolm X, one of the country's most powerful voices for self-worth and black pride. The rest of the stories in this beautifully written book are equally fascinating, and the entire volume is movingly enhanced by poetry and by the inviting, creative illustrations of Brian Pinkney, the author's husband. Pinkney writes how difficult it was to choose the 10 men for this volume, and I wish she had included at least one of the younger giants of the civil rights movement, many of whom are unknown to today's generation but who were the movement's "shock troops." Still, "Hand in Hand" provides a light that could help guide men out of the darkness in which all too many are forced to live. "Unspoken: A Story From the Underground Railroad," by Henry Cole, can be described as "a wordless Civil War story," designed to present youngsters with a moral choice. A slim volume of charcoal drawings, the book follows a white child living with her folks on a farm in what is clearly the Confederate South. Slaves are escaping their captivity via secret routes to the North. One day, as the protagonist is going about her chores, she is startled to hear noises in the corn crib and soon sees an eye peering at her through the stalks. She runs away, frightened. But eventually, confronted with the choice of turning in a runaway slave or helping him, she stealthily smuggles him food. Cole leaves the narrative to the imagination. What would you do if you had a chance to help a person find freedom? I'm not sure why the only black representation is an eye looking through a hole. But the author, a former teacher, clearly intended "Unspoken" to be a challenging book, its somber sepia tone drawings establishing a mood of foreboding. For younger readers, the book presumes adult guidance. "I Have a Dream" is one of Martin Luther King's most enduring speeches, made at the historic March on Washington in 1963. It was a march for jobs and freedom for black Americans, and Dr. King's eloquent speech took these causes to another level, as he appealed for justice, unity and brotherhood. In soft earth tones, but sometimes in larger-than-life depictions, the award-winning illustrator Kadir Nelson drives home the message for children of all ages. When Dr. King talks about the "dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," Nelson features on one of the pages two black boys in suits and ties, with similar warm facial expressions, followed on the next page by two appealing black girls in their Sunday school best. Another page shows black and white children in a ring-around-the-rosie scene to illustrate that one day "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers." The book includes a DVD of King's speech and, for younger readers, will require adult context-setting and guidance. The book ends with a flock of doves at King's finale - "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" - driving home in a creative and accessible way the powerful message, and keeping it alive today. It endures as a refrain we need in our continuing struggle for freedom, justice equality. Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a former correspondent for CNN, NPR and PBS. Her most recent book is "To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement."

School Library Journal Review

Gr 3-8-Gorgeously rendered in soft, dark pencils, this wordless book is reminiscent of the naturalistic pencil artistry of Maurice Sendak and Brian Selznick, but unique in its accurate re-creation of a Civil War-era farm in northwestern Virginia. On the dedication page, readers see a star quilt on a split rail fence, symbolizing the North Star. Confederate soldiers arrive on horseback and a farmer's daughter's lingering gaze betrays her intuition of their visit. She goes about her duties of feeding the animals and gathering harvested vegetables. In the recently harvested cornstalks propped up in the corner of the barn, she hears a rustling and sees an eye. Superb visual storytelling shows her hands time and time again offering a piece of corn bread, apple pie, a leg of chicken, each time on a small checkered kerchief, to the young, hidden runaway. The soldiers return with a poster: "Wanted! Escaped! Reward!" These words call out in the otherwise wordless book, and readers feel their power. Parallels between the fugitive and the farmer's daughter establish themselves visually when the latter gazes from behind a door, terrified at this threat. An author's note details the Civil War stories Cole heard as a young boy and underscores his intention of showing not the division, anger, and violence of the Civil War, but "the courage of everyday people who were brave in quiet ways."-Sara Lissa Paulson, American Sign Language and English Lower School PS 347, New York City (c) Copyright 2012. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Review

A farm child and a fugitive make an unspoken connection in this suspenseful, wordless Civil War episode. Drawn in monochrome pencil on rough-textured paper, the broad, full-page and full-spread rural scenes give the encounter a shadowy, atmospheric setting. Going about her chores after watching a detachment of mounted soldiers beneath a Confederate flag trot by, the child is startled and fearful to realize that someone is hiding in a pile of cornstalks in the storehouse. Rather than mention this to the (seemingly) oblivious adults in her extended family or, later, to the hunters who come by with a reward poster, she courageously ventures out by herself, carrying small gifts of food. Never seen beyond a glimpse of an eye amid the leaves, the fugitive at last departs as silently as he (or she) came--leaving a corn doll in return for the girl's kindness. In a ruminative afterword, Cole reflects on his Virginia family's own connections to the war and, though silent about the signal quilt he hangs on the farmyard's fence in the illustrations, explains the significance of the Big Dipper visible in the nighttime sky. Moving and emotionally charged, the book is capped with a powerful close-up of the child's face on the rear cover with the legend "What would you do if you had the chance to help a person find freedom?" (Picture book. 7-10)]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.