• Happy birthday E. L. Konigsburg (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The View From Saturday), Stephen Gammell (The Relatives Came), Mark Teague (How do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?), James Rice (Cowboy Night Before Christmas), and Lucy Cousins (Maisy series).
  • It’s the birth date of Charles Lamb (1775–1834) Tales from Shakespeare.
  • The Postal Telegraph Company of New York City introduces the singing telegram in 1933.
  • In 1996, the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue defeats Garry Kasparov in chess. Read Way Down Deep in the Deep Blue Sea by Jan Peck, illustrated by Valeria Petrone.
  • Children of Alcoholics Week begins today. Read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Since 1976 Black History Month has been celebrated in the United States during February. We’ll look at a couple of superb titles this month, beginning with one of the best picture information books of the decade, Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Ellen is an historian’s historian; she loves research—and has a nose for a superb story. While reading an 800-page book, William Still’s The Underground Railroad (1872), she came across the story of a man who mailed himself to Stills’s Anti-Slavery Society office. Slave Henry Brown built himself a box, less than three feet square, and mailed himself to freedom, a journey that took twenty-seven hours in a tight space with tiny air holes. Levine knew this true incident should be available for children, a perfect way to describe the lengths to which slaves would go to be free.

In Henry’s Freedom Box Ellen tells Henry’s story—his work and brutal treatment on the plantation, the selling of his wife and children into slavery. With the help of a white abolitionist doctor, Henry executes his plan—putting himself in a box and mailing himself to freedom. Ellen’s spare but effective text has been brilliantly illustrated by Kadir Nelson, one of the most accomplished artists working today. Brilliant in his portraits, Nelson brings us Henry as a young boy and then a young man falling in love. He shows him trapped inside the box, steeled for whatever happens in those twenty-seven hours. And in this Caldecott Honor Book, he shows us the final triumphant scene, Henry emerging from the box with a birthday (his first freedom day) and a new name, Henry “Box” Brown.

To the children’s book field, Ellen Levine has brought more credentials than most—a B.A. in Politics from Brandeis, a Master’s in Political Science from University of Chicago, and a Juris Doctor degree from New York University School of Law; she even served as a clerk for Judge Joseph Lord’s U.S. District Court. As someone who hates injustice, Levine is a passionate speaker about the rights of individuals—hence Henry “Box” Brown received his due in her hands. In another book, Freedom’s Children, she recorded the stories of thirty children and teenagers who contributed to the Civil Rights movement.

While living Ellen worked as part of the faculty for Vermont College’s M.F.A. program. As author M.T. Anderson, who taught with her there, has written: “Everything Ellen writes—fiction, non-fiction, picture books—is written out of passion. Not just passion for the truth, but passion for justice. That’s what makes her voice so unique and so defiant.” The children’s book field has, indeed, been fortunate that Ellen gave up the power of law for the power of the pen.

Here’s a page from Henry’s Freedom Box:


Originally posted February 10, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: African American, Award Winning, Caldecott, Civil War, History, Multicultural, True Story
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad


  1. Sydnee says:

    Wow! This is such a wonderful choice for the almanac.

  2. Barbara Somervill says:

    This is a must read for Black History Month. Beautifully illustrated. Marvelous story. Definitely a top pick.

  3. Victoria says:

    In elementary school, I remember learning about the Underground Railroad, and being amazed to learn that a house in my town – Andover, MA – was an actual stop on the route. Anytime you can find a connection to the real world, in this book’s case a telling of a true story, the history becomes that much more real. Great choice!

  4. Andrena says:

    Kadir does it every time. I was drawn to Kadir when I picked up this book. His illustrations are so alive to me! When I read it, it was an extra treat!!! There are so many of these kinds of stories to be unearthed and brought to life via picture book. The next step – is bringing this kind of text to every African American child. The catcher for me – is not being allowed to know your birth date. Kadir drew me in, Levine’s incredible capture of history – still keeps me there.

  5. Erica S. says:

    I love hearing about the process from “Hey, that’s an incredible story!” to finished product. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by how many “incredible stories” are out there, but mostly I’m just excited by the prospect of so many books that would make excellent supplements to the traditional history curriculum. I hope teachers find and use these books to “draw in” students as Andrena says.

  6. Erin Mawn says:

    I was introduced to Kadir Nelson’s books in Picturebook class. His characters always have very expressive faces, and I am always amazed at the way he illustrates light in scenes that use ruch rich colors. The Carle is having an exhibition of his work which opens next week. I cannot wait to see it.

  7. Lisa Nagel says:

    I love Henry’s Freedom Box, and was so happy when Kadir won the Corretta Scott King Award this year, for his new book Heart and Soul.

  8. Ashley Barry says:

    The use of light is astonishing in this book. I remember picking up this book for the first time and how captivated I was by the cover art. The sadness in those eyes is so overwhelming.

Leave a Comment

Daily children’s book recommendations and events from Anita Silvey.

Discover the stories behind the children’s book classics . . .

The new books on their way to becoming classics . . .

And events from the world of children’s books—and the world at large.