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14:14 PB ELEMENTS – Henry’s Freedom Box – PLOT

February 22, 2015

This book is a visual and historical treasure, relating the story of Henry ‘Box’ Brown, a famous slave who mailed himself to freedom in 1849.  It is a Caldecott Honor Book, and it’s easy to see why the minute you look at the cover.

Henrys Box 1Henry’s Freedom Box
author, Ellen Levine
illustrator, Kadir Nelson
(c) 2007, Scholastic Press

(1,260 words, AR Reading Level 3.0)

A child’s dark deep eyes strike you with a stare of determination and courage, seeming to carry a hidden sorrow.  In the background a string of geese fly in a soft blue sky of freedom.

There are several elements used in this fine story, but I think the one most prominent to me is PLOT.  There is rising action and falling action from page one, where uncertainty leads the reader to the next point on a line full of crises:

“Henry Brown wasn’t sure how old he was. Henry was a slave. And slaves weren’t allowed to know their birthdays.”

In the next spread, he feels his mother’s uncertainty. She says,

“Do you see those leaves blowing in the wind? They are torn from the trees like slave children are torn from their families.”

Then Henry’s sick master gives him to the master’s brother. The new master takes him to a city for factory work. The boss at the factory is harsh. Henry is lonely.  Then he finds a young lady, and with approval of each of their masters, they marry. Life is good, a moment of hope, until his new wife Nancy tells that her master lost a lot of money, and she is afraid he will sell their children.

After days of worry and again, uncertainty, he gets news that his children and wife have been sold. Despair, but then another hope. With the help of a friend and a white doctor who was anti-slavery, he places himself in a box to be mailed north to freedom.

Despite his fears, worries about what could go wrong, as the plot follows his box through alternate moments of danger and safety on a long journey, Henry arrives in Pennsylvania.  Dr. Smith’s friends open the crate. He comes out of his box, and claims the ‘birthday’ he never knew as his first day of freedom, March 30, 1849.

I like how the alternate uncertainties of both Henry’s emotions and his circumstances run parallel throughout the story line.  The best plot is never about just circumstances, but also about feelings, and mental state, and about the growth in a character that we all long to see.

Watching this character move from uncertainty, to hope, to courage, to freedom, was a journey worth learning.

(See a list of other reviewers’ posts in Christi’s latest post at Write Wild.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 24, 2015 5:09 pm

    Great analysis. And yes, I do so love Kadir Nelson’s powerful illustrations for this version.

  2. Christie Wright Wild permalink
    February 24, 2015 9:54 pm

    I’ve always loved Kadir Nelson’s artwork. I just read this book about a week ago. Still in the bookstores. Amazing story. He never did find his family, but I believe it says he eventually remarried. I love the passages you quoted, as well as how you mentioned moments of hope and of uncertainty. Thanks.

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