- Age Range: 4 – 8 years
- Author/ Illustrator: Ellen Levine & Katie Nelson
- Grade Level: Preschool – 3
Henry’s Freedom Box is a historical non-fiction children’s picture book that tells the story of Henry “Box” Brown escaping slavery by mailing himself to freedom. The book was published in 2007 and a decade later this children’s book still conveys a message more relevant than ever. Aesthetically, the book provides beautiful illustrations with rich yellows, deep reds, and powder blues. The colors form a contrast from the dress and skin tone of the slaves depicted, perhaps to further “other” them. However, as the story progresses, neutral colors begin to become more integrated until the last few pages where everyone and everything are in neutral colors. The illustrations themselves are extremely valuable, as they provide deeper insight into character emotion and setting through facial expressions and body language. A scene in the story describes Henry having to hurt himself in order to escape his slavery, a scene that is elevated much more when the reader can see a bandaged hand and solemn look on Henry’s face in the picture. Overall, the illustrations work to give children a gateway to recognize the horrors of slavery in a more age-appropriate setting through colorful pictures and a “happy ending.”
In reference to literary style, Levine is greatly successful in giving this book a folk tale sort of feel. There are longer passages on each page that alternate between detailed descriptions of character and brief dialogue. There is a lot of repetition of words and similar sounds that give the story a distinct rhythm when it is read aloud. For example on page 11, “Henry couldn’t move. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t work. ‘Twist that tobacco!’ Henry twisted tobacco leaves. His heart twisted in his chest.” The use of similar, short sentence structure in addition to h and t sound repetitions (Henry, he, his, heart, think, twist, that, tobacco, twisted). In reference to sound repetition and narrative style writing, the reader can benefit greatly by experiencing this book aloud.
Levine’s book can be best evaluated through a social representation lens, as it is a true story from what was one of our nation’s’ most underrepresented group of people. The African American individuals are portrayed with correct features without over exaggerating or stereotyping and it is culturally accurate, including things like authentic slave songs. Furthermore, Henry’s Freedom Box is a piece of literature that can be used as the “window” into a culture not everyone identifies with by allowing the reader, “…to view, to empathize, and to participate emotionally in ways that may ultimately change the ways we see ourselves and the society in which we live (Cultural Journeys 2).” Then once the past is learned, Levine’s work can be further used to discuss current race relations and prejudices in today’s society. It can be a foundation for students to understand why movements like Black Lives Matter exist and a basis for conversations later on down the road.
Another criteria to consider when looking at social representation is to consider how much power a group holds and how it compares to other groups represented within the story. The author does an excellent job in using the imbalance of power between master and slave to actually empower the reader and effectively get her message across. A message about the ability to overcome. We can be put in the worst of circumstances and still overcome our adversities and obstacles even if we have less power. It is a strong message for children that becomes amplified when represented through the story of Henry “Box” Brown. The message becomes real and provides a real role model, especially to children of color, that they can look back to for inspiration. Henry’s Freedom Box also provides undertones of hope throughout the story that encourages the reader to continue on after the story has ended. As a truly good author would do, the message she created still has very relevant and modern connections. These next few years can be challenging and testing for very many minority groups and even now Levine’s message of keeping hope in the darkest of times is one that can inspire today. As an individual person, as a group of people underrepresented, and as a band of minority groups, when you feel powerless, remember this story, feel empowered, have hope, and make change, even if it has to be in out-of-the-“box” ways.