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Unspoken by Henry Cole review

It’s pretty rare that a kid’s book sends shivers up your spine – in a good way.   Unspoken by Henry Cole did just that for me.  His wordless story of humanity and courage is beautifully judged.   Unspoken encapsulates a little piece of American history in a profound way for 7-10 year olds, and gets the reader to ask themselves; ‘what is that person really thinking?’


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Unspoken is the story of the Underground Railroad – the network of Southern families who helped slaves who had escaped to reach safety in the North.   A farm girl discovers an escaped slave hiding in the barn.  Overcoming her initial fear, she silently hides food from the family dinner table to take to the man or woman (we never discover). The family is wordless too, when the soldiers arrive with offers of a reward, but leave empty handed.

The author grew up on a farm in Virginia and as a child, listened to Civil War stories from elderly relatives at Thanksgiving.  Unspoken is based on Henry Cole’s fascination with the part that the barn on his own farm might have played in the history of slavery.

My 8 year old and I read it together, slowly and carefully, drawn in by the characters’ expressions, and talking a little about the history.   What fascinated me was working out the expressions of the girl’s family:  Did they know what the girl was doing? Were they an established safe house, and the adults set her up for it?  One of the signs that families used to leave out for slaves running for freedom was a blanket over a fence.


I’d had my eye on Unspoken for a little while, having had my attention drawn to it by blogger and librarian 100 Scope Notes, and the New York Times picks of 2012.  The book was tipped by many to be a Caldecott winner, but beaten to it by Jon Klassen’s That’s Not my Hat’.

Henry Cole decided Unspoken would be wordless, after his written version was rejected, as he explains in this interview.  The book is all the more powerful for its silence and resonates with the courage of the men and women in search of their freedom and the people who helped them.  As blogger Bookdragon says; it’s a personal victory for Henry Cole too, having had many call for another of his books to be censored.

Unspoken is a book that kids will find different meanings and questions about as they get older, and is a picture book that you’d want to keep on your shelves long after the children have left home.

Unspoken by Henry Cole is published by Scholastic New York, 2012.

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