Kid Lit Review of “Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad” by Henry Cole


There are no words at all in this book, except on the back cover. In fact, if it were not for the subtitle, one might not know at all that this book is set in the South during the Civil War, at a farm that may or may not be part of the “official” Underground Railroad. (The opening picture spread shows a quilt hung outside the barn, suggesting that this homestead was designated by its owners as a safe haven.)


No drawings show slaves, or any blacks at all. The story is entirely focused on the young girl who lives at the farm and who takes food to a fugitive she finds hiding in the cornstalks. (All we ever see of this fugitive is one eye peeping out.)

I think that, without adult guidance, all that younger readers may see happening is that there is somebody hiding in this young girl’s barn, and the girl brings whoever it is food, and then the person leaves her a corn-husk doll in gratitude.

Unspoken - 9780545399975 - Pages 12-13small

Several elements of this book make it extraordinary. For one thing, the lack of any text requires much more reader participation than the usual book, and will undoubtedly inspire further investigation by readers.

But the biggest standout feature of this book is the remarkable atmosphere created by the pencil and paper drawings by Cole, reminiscent of the style of Brian Selznick. These illustrations invest the story with a drama and tension that may not have been evident had language “normalized” what was happening. And the emotions clearly expressed by the drawings are incredible.

Unspoken - 9780545399975 - Pages 16-17 (1) final-right

Discussion: Is the lack of information in this book a good thing or a bad thing? It doesn’t tell you anything about why a person might legitimately be hiding from authorities. It implies, however, that the fugitive is a good person. Is the person being sought justly or unjustly? The text doesn’t say. And a young reader, even upon learning that the fugitive is probably someone trying to escape slavery, may extrapolate mentally to think that anyone sneaking around and hiding out from the law could be good. This is not necessarily a productive message for young kids; what may be courageous under some circumstances could be extremely harmful in others.

So while I think this book is just outstanding, I definitely would recommend it be read along with an adult who explains the nuances of the story from a historical perspective.


Evaluation: From an artistic standpoint, I think this book is not to be missed!

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., 2012


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6 Responses to Kid Lit Review of “Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad” by Henry Cole

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    It does look gorgeous but it also seems that it could do with some backstory – even if it was just a page or two at the beginning or end of the book.

  2. Vasilly says:

    As beautiful as this book is, I think the lack of information is a bad thing. Kathy’s right, there should be a page or two about the backstory. I don’t think young kids will always catch on to what’s happening in the book without an adult to explain. I know my kids didn’t understand.

    The author’s style does remind me of Selznick and that was one of the reasons why I picked it up.

  3. Gorgeous book, but yeah, I can see how the lack of information would be problematic for kids. It reminds me of (but is more serious than) that thing where Big Bird had an imaginary friend that was Snuffy, and nobody but Big Bird could see Snuffy, and grown-ups got worried that kids would think it was cool to have huge secrets from grown-ups.

  4. Beth F says:

    Wow beautiful! But I agree with the others, a little bit of story would be helpful.

  5. Staci@LifeintheThumb says:

    Gorgeous illustrations. Shaun Tan has a few books like this where there are no words. I love giving it to my older students and then talking about their interpretations and comparing them to mine.

  6. stacybuckeye says:

    Um, no. I have a book (w a train because that’s always a draw) checked out of the library that Gage wants to read at every meal and bedtime. It has no words. I do fine until the last 3 pages which make no sense to me whatsoever. Every time I make up new nonsense. It takes way too much work!

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