“Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves” ― Abraham Lincoln
Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad – Henry Cole
Another children’s classic, the picture book. It is unusual for me to try and review a book with no words at all, but a challenge I accepted and enjoyed to the last.
What would you do
if you had the chance
to help a person
This is the question presented to a young girl, in Henry Cole’s haunting tale of a young slave’s journey to freedom.
Unspoken is a beautiful example of a children’s picture book with illustrations that are filled with emotion and can, on their own, tell a strong and provocative tale. Cole has taken something which is often associated with children’s literature, a picture book, a wordless story, and created something beautiful. That is not to say that picture books can’t appeal to adults. Children’s classic such as The Snowman, and Father Christmas are stunning and offer equal entertainment for adults as they do for children. Indeed, the tale told in Unspoken can speak more toward an adult audience as the innocent child is unlikely to grasp the full extent of sadness that underlies the beautiful artwork. To the child the book may appear as nothing more than a story of young girl with a secret friend.
Without words, the young girl who lives within the illustrations of Cole’s work is almost a stranger to us; we do not know her name, or very much about her life. However, from her actions it seems as though she is from a less than well off family. Cole draws her working on a farm in tattered clothes, leading cattle and feeding chickens. It is while carrying out chores that the child sees men on horseback riding through her family’s farm, they are searching for something, and she is soon to discover the whereabouts of their quarry. Sent to the barn to gather supplies she is startle by a sound coming from a pile of corn – there is someone there.
If we knew little about the young girl, even more mysterious is the identity of the runaway. We see only their eye peeking through the ears of corn, and later, their thankful hands, reaching out to receive food encased within the young girl’s handkerchief. In my mind I have given the runaway a female identity, although each reader will have their own feelings on this matter.
The worry etched on the young girls face as she hides this secret says far more than any words could express. Her concern seeps from the pages, a combined anxiety for the creature in the corn, and that she will be discovered harbouring a fugitive. She watches with clear disdain as men on horseback visit her father once again, offering a reward for the return of an escaped slave. You can see that the family live a simple life, likely a reward would be very gratefully received, and yet the young girl looks on, in silence.
Our heroine, beautiful in her innocence, seems only to think of the safety of the figure in the corn. She follows her heart, as the runaway follows the North Star, away from the South, to freedom. When she returns to the barn and finds the runaway gone, leaving behind a small token of thanks, she knows she has made the right choice.
Without a single word Cole’s book speaks mountains. There is no colour, no creed, no judgement, just a person, helping another person.
In his author’s note Cole writes that he hopes that those who read the book will use his pictures as a starting point to create their own story – filling in all that has been left unspoken.