Celebrate African-American History Month with Henry's Freedom Box

Henry’s Freedom Box is a good book to introduce children to the concept of slavery in America before the civil war. Photo: Kadir Nelson

SILVER SPRING, Md, February 1, 2013 – Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson ISBN: 9780439777339

This is the story of a slave named Henry. It begins when he is a young boy, working with his mother as a house slave until their master becomes ill. Henry is separated from his mother when he is given to the sick man’s son who runs a tobacco factory.

One day while walking in town, Henry meets a slave girl named Nancy who is out shopping for her master. They fall in love, and months later he asked Nancy to marry him. Both of their masters agree, and as time passes they have two children.  Henry counts himself lucky to have such a wonderful family, but one day Nancy tells him that she is worried. Her master has lost a lot of money, and she is afraid that he might sell the children.

Henry tries not to think about what she has said, but while he is working his friend James comes to tell him his family has just been sold at the market. Henry has to wait until his lunch break to try to find Nancy and his children, but he arrives at the town center just in time to see them disappear down the street in a wagon.

Photo by Robynlou Kavanagh.


After losing his family, Henry becomes sad and starts dreaming of freedom. Eventually he asks his friend James and Dr. Smith, a white-man who thinks slavery is wrong, for help in escaping.  First Henry injures his hand so he cannot work and will not be missed, then the next day before dawn he packs himself in a large crate. Dr. Smith addresses the crate for a friend in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

James and Dr. Smith drive a wagon carrying the box with Henry in it to the train station. Henry is loaded onto the train, then onto a steamboat and then onto another train. Finally, someone opens the box, and when Henry comes out he is greeted by Dr. Smith’s friends; he has reached Philadelphia and is free.  

Henry’s Freedom Box is a good book to introduce children to the concept of what slavery in America was like before the civil war. It not only introduces the concept of slavery, but also shows how slaves could be bought and sold, how families were separated, and how some slaves tried to escape to freedom. In 2008 Henry’s Freedom Box was a Caldecott honor book, an American Library Association notable book, named a Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People by the National Council for the Social Studies in cooperation with the Children’s Book Council and named a Notable Book for a Global Society by the International Reading Association.

This book may not be suitable for very young children. While many publisher age recommendations can be more flexible that stated, allowing for younger audiences, in this case the age recommendation (ages 4-8) is appropriate. The themes of slavery and freedom, and how they are presented, may be too sophisticated for those below the recommended age to grasp.

Photo by J. Aaron Farr. Click to enlarge.


Illustrator Kadir Nelson is the perfect person for this book. Having illustrated numerous children’s books, specializing in topics related to African-American history, he has been a two-time Caldecott honor book winner, two-time Coretta Scott King Award winner, as well as receiving a CASEY Award and a Robert F. Silbert Informational Book Award. The artwork is beautiful and the realistic style of the pictures suits the serious story and does not distract from the lessons taught.

Published by Scholastic, Henry’s Freedom Box is available only as a hardcover.


Follow Brighid on Twitter a @BrighidMoret and receive updates when new columns post on Facebook or Google+. Read more about first time parenting issues in Parenting the First Time Through at The Communities at The Washington Times. Find more reviews of children’s picture books at Big Reads For Little Hands.

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Brighid Moret

Brighid is a freelance writer and first time mother.  She holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.  Find her on Facebook @Brighid Moret


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