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Henry's Freedom Box

Last updated Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Author: Ellen Levine
Illustrator: Kadir Nelson
Date of Publication: 2007
ISBN: 043977733X
Grade Level: 4th    (GLCs: Click here for grade level guidelines.)
Date(s) Used: Jul. 2007

Synopsis: From Publishers Weekly: Levine (Freedom's Children) recounts the true story of Henry Brown, a slave who mailed himself to freedom. Thanks to Nelson's (Ellington Was Not a Street) penetrating portraits, readers will feel as if they can experience Henry's thoughts and feelings as he matures through unthinkable adversity. As a boy, separated from his mother, he goes to work in his new master's tobacco factory and eventually meets and marries another slave, with whom he has three children. In a heartwrenching scene depicted in a dramatically shaded pencil, watercolor and oil illustration, Henry watches as his family—suddenly sold in the slave market—disappears down the road. Henry then enlists the help of an abolitionist doctor and mails himself in a wooden crate "to a place where there are no slaves!" He travels by horse-drawn cart, steamboat and train before his box is delivered to the Philadelphia address of the doctor's friends on March 30, 1849. Alongside Henry's anguished thoughts en route, Nelson's clever cutaway images reveal the man in his cramped quarters (at times upside-down). A concluding note provides answers to questions that readers may wish had been integrated into the story line, such as where did Henry begin his journey? (Richmond, Va.); how long did it take? (27 hours). Readers never learn about Henry's life as a free man—or, perhaps unavoidably, whether he was ever reunited with his family. Still, these powerful illustrations will make readers feel as if they have gained insight into a resourceful man and his extraordinary story.

Note to readers:
•  Read author's note in the back. This is a true story and deals with evils of slavery.

Discussion topics for before reading:
•  What do you think this book may be about?
•  What do you know about the underground railroad? About slaves?
•  What does it mean to be free?
•  Do you know what slavery is?
•  Why is it important to have a birthday? What does a birthday signify? (Growing up)
•  How would you feel if you never had a birthday?

Discussion topics for during/after reading:
•  Why is slavery bad?
•  What are things slaves were not allowed to do? (Sing in the streets, live with their families, not paid for work.....)
•  Why did Henry want to go where slaves were free?
•  Why did Dr. Smith help Henry?
•  What do you think of Henry? Was he smart? Brave? Crazy?
•  Was everyone in favor of slavery? How did others help the slaves?
•  What did Henry win at the end?
•  Has anyone ever been mean to you because of how you looked or where you were from? How did that make you feel?

Craft ideas:
•  Plan An Escape Route. Pretend that you're a runaway slave in pre-Civil War times. Now pick a slave state location from which you have just escaped. Decide when you will travel, day or night. Will you use a disguise? How fast can you walk? Figure out the average miles that you're going to be able to cover each day. Remember that if you're going to have to walk at night, you will probably slow down a bit. Plan your route; sketch a map showing your travel. What time of the year will you journey? Make a timeline. Put together your best escape plan.
•  Pretend you’re a conductor of the underground railroad and write messages using secret code. Make up your own (and make sure to write a key!) or use the codes real conductors used (
•  Souvenir Trunk. Bring ahead option: brown grocery bag, shoe box (and lid). Cut open the bag and glue the paper on the outside of the shoe box and lid. Put the lid on the box. To make straps, glue two strips of black construction paper around the box. Start at the front of the lid, and end at the front of the box. Cut out a latch and other details from construction paper. Glue them on.
•  During slavery times, quilts were often sewn with secret codes. The quilts were hung in the window and arrows pointed to safe houses. Make a quilt as depicted hanging on the wall in one of the pictures. Use one sheet of construction paper for the quilt backing. Cut up smaller squares out of construction paper or white paper. Have each child make a square for every kid in the room. Draw a pictures in the squares. Have each child trade squares so everyone has a square from every child. Glue the squares on the larger construction paper.
•  Make a origami box and decorate the outside with the things slaves were not allowed to do.

*Note: These craft ideas are just suggestions. You can use them, but you don't have to use them. You can expand upon them, or add your own twist. Remember, though, that the focus of your time should not be on the development and execution of a craft; the focus should be on the read-aloud and the enjoyment of the book!