Tag Archives: Kadir Nelson

Henry’s Freedom Box, A True Story from the Underground Railroad

Written by: Ellen Levine

Illustrated by: Kadir Nelson

For ages: 7 years and up

Language: English

Topics Covered: POC-Centric Narratives, Enslavement, Underground Railroad, Historical  Figures, Historical Fiction, Family, Friendship, Abolition. 

Summary: This book is heart wrenching.  Very little happens in this story that is positive besides gaining freedom, and it gives a very real look at Henry’s life while being enslaved.  There are very mature themes throughout this book, and it should be used in conjunction with classroom talks and discussions about enslavement, freedom, and racism.

Henry is a young enslaved boy when his enslaver falls very ill.  Henry is called to his enslaver’s bedroom and has the tiniest spark of hope that he will be given freedom.  Instead, he is given to his enslaver’s son.  Henry says goodbye to his family, and is sent to work in his new enslaver’s factory.  Henry was good at his job, but the factory owner was very cruel and would poke his enslaved people with a sharp stick or beat them for making mistakes.

Henry is now older than a boy, still working in the factory.  He meets Nancy, who is also enslaved, and they fall in love.  Given permission to marry, they do so and had three children.  Henry and Nancy were lucky in that despite being enslaved by two different people, they were permitted to live together as a family.  One night, Nancy confides to Henry that her enslaver just lost a lot of money and is worried that he will sell their children.  The next day, Henry tries not to be worried about what Nancy had said but cannot shake the feeling.  Henry’s friend James comes into the factory and whispers to Henry that his wife and children have just been sold to another enslaver.  At lunch, he runs downtown just in time to see his wife and children disappearing down the road.  Devastated, he can’t think of anything except how to escape enslavement.  Weeks pass, and Henry comes up with a plan with the help of his friend James and a white abolitionist named Dr. Smith.  Henry will mail himself to freedom in a shipping crate.  Dr. Smith addressed the crate to his friend in Philadelphia, and then Henry burned his hand down to the bone with oil of vitriol as an excuse to stay home from the tobacco factory.  Despite Dr. Smith begging the shipping crew to be careful with the box, it is thrown onto a steamboat and Henry must ride upside down until he is moved again.  He falls asleep and is awoken to loud knocking on the box.  He made it to Philadelphia!

Henry’s 350 mile journey took him around 27 hours, and is one of the most well-known individuals that freed themselves from enslavement using the help of the Underground Railroad.  He never found Nancy and his children, and moved to England in 1850.  Henry was a very intelligent man.  This book was published in 2007 and is a Caldecott Honor Book.  Some of the language could be updated to reflect the switch to ‘enslavement’ rather than ‘slavery’ when describing the period of enslavement.  Levine is a talented author with an interest in social justice, and this is an important story for children to know about when learning about history.  We must acknowledge that she is non-Black and writing about a BIPOC historical figure, but she writes in a way that gives Henry ownership over his own destiny and is an active-doer.  Henry is the one that gets himself to freedom, enlisting the help of an abolitionist rather than waiting for someone to save him.

Reflection Questions:

  • What do you think about Henry?
  • How do you think families felt when they were broken up, like Nancy and Henry were?
  • Why do you think people enslaved others?
  • Abolitionists were crucial in fighting against the white supremacy and enslavement during Henry’s life.  Why do you think these people decided to fight against the system?

About the Author & the Illustrator:

Ellen_levine-210Ellen Levine, whose books for young people were born of a love for teaching and her active espousal of social justice, died on May 26, 2012 of lung cancer. She was 73.

Her 2007 picture book Henry’s Freedom Box (Scholastic), illustrated by Kadir Nelson, was the true story of a slave named Henry “Box” Brown who mailed himself north to freedom in a wooden packing crate. The title received warm critical praise and was named a Caldecott Honor Book. Some of her other well-known publications include I Hate English! (Scholastic), Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Stories (Putnam), and Rachel Carson: A Twentieth-Century Life (Viking). Levine published several nonfiction works for adults as well.

A woman of wide-ranging interests and talents, Levine earned degrees in politics and political science, was an attorney for a public-interest law group after receiving her law degree from New York University in 1979, and was a respected documentary filmmaker, woodcarver and freelance photographer. She also was an adult literacy and ESL tutor and taught courses in writing for children and young adults in Vermont College’s MFA program.

She is survived by her spouse and partner Anne Koedt, also an author and illustrator of children’s books, her sister and brother-in-law Mada Leibman and Burt Liebman, and nieces and nephews.

SITE BIO PHOTO2Kadir Nelson (b. 1974) is an American artist who currently exhibits his artwork in galleries and museums nationwide and abroad. His paintings are in the private and public permanent collections of several notable institutions including the Muskegon Museum of Art, The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the International Olympic Committee, and the US House of Representatives. Nelson has also authored and illustrated several award-winning NYT Best-Selling picture books including, “WE ARE THE SHIP: The Story of Negro League Baseball” and “Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans.” Nelson states, “I feel that art’s highest function is that of a mirror, reflecting the innermost beauty and divinity of the human spirit; and is most effective when it calls the viewer to remember one’s highest self. I choose subject matter that has emotional and spiritual resonance and focuses on the journey of the hero as it relates to the personal and collective stories of people.“

Day 12: Featuring Fabulous Illustrators!

Day 12, and it’s all about illustrators today!  We had a pretty tough time narrowing it down, because every artist has their own unique style and artistic twist, which makes it so difficult to choose favorites!  Without further ado, here are our favorite book illustrations:


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Vashti Harrison

Part author – Illustrator – filmmaker Vashti Harrison is an artist originally from Onley, Virginia. She has a background in cinematography and screenwriting and a love for storytelling. She earned her BA from the University of Virginia with a double major in Media Studies and Studio Art with concentrations in Film and Cinematography. She received her MFA in Film and Video from CalArts where she snuck into Animation classes to learn from Disney and Dreamworks legends. There she rekindled a love for drawing and painting. Now, utilizing both skill sets, she is passionate about crafting beautiful stories in both the film and kidlit worlds.  Her Experimental films and videos focus on her Caribbean Heritage and folklore. They have shown around the world at film festivals and venues including the New York Film Festival, Rotterdam International Film Festival and Edinburgh International Film Festival. Find out more.

Vashti’s work can be found in:

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Shaking Things Up

Something we love about this book is the assorted artists that illustrate the pages!  Click on the link above to learn more about both the women featured in the book, as well as all of the artists involved in the illustrations!


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Kadir Nelson

Kadir Nelson (b. 1974) is an American artist who currently exhibits his artwork in galleries and museums nationwide and abroad. His paintings are in the private and public permanent collections of several notable institutions including the Muskegon Museum of Art, The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the International Olympic Committee, and the US House of Representatives. Nelson has also authored and illustrated several award-winning NYT Best-Selling picture books including, “WE ARE THE SHIP: The Story of Negro League Baseball” and “Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans.” Nelson states, “I feel that art’s highest function is that of a mirror, reflecting the innermost beauty and divinity of the human spirit; and is most effective when it calls the viewer to remember one’s highest self. I choose subject matter that has emotional and spiritual resonance and focuses on the journey of the hero as it relates to the personal and collective stories of people.“

His work can be found in:

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Gordon C. James

Gordon C. James’ chosen artistic genre has its roots in Impressionism.  The art of John Singer Sargent, Nicholai Fechin, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and many others inspired James to pursue a style that is both academic and expressive.  As a result his work contains a lyricism not often found in contemporary art.  Be it through the sensitivity found in his romantic pieces, or commitment to excellence in his commercial work, James always connects with his viewer.  He says of his work, “When people see my art I want them to say, I know that person, I know that feeling.” James currently resides in Charlotte, NC with his wife Ingrid, their children Astrid and Gabriel, and their dog Rascal.

His work can be found in:

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Thunder Rose

Written by: Jerdine Nolen

Illustrated by: Kadir Nelson

For ages: 5-10 years

Language: English

Topics Covered: POC-Centric Narratives, Feminism, Love, Family, Acceptance, Folklore. 

Summary: This book tells the tale of Rose, a baby born during a thunderstorm in the Old West.  This magical child sits right up and grabs a ball of lightning to hold over her shoulder, and begins to speak.  Overcome with love and emotion, her parents begin to sing to Rose.  Rose tells them she will keep the song in her heart and harness its power one day.  Rose earned her nickname Thunder Rose that first night, from snoring so loudly along with the thunder that she rattled the rafters.  As Thunder Rose grows up, her strength and resilience is a source of great pride for her parents.  Rose can lift up a cow, bend iron bars, and stake new fences into the family farm without help.  Thunder Rose may be sweet and polite, but she is full of thunder and lightning.  Rose bends a thunderbolt out of iron and names it Cole, a constant companion and tool for life on the farm.  One day Thunder Rose gets wind of a herd of stampeding bulls, and manages to stop them just in time from destroying the family’s farmhouse.  Upon catching the biggest and meanest steer in the herd, Rose starts to hum the song in her heart and the steer became the sweetest and most playful bull anyone had ever met!  Rose named him Tater, and they became fast friends, snuggling together in the field.

Rose goes on to create barbed wire, and catches a group of bandits trying to steal cattle.  During a drought, Thunder Rose tries to lasso some clouds and get rain but is unsuccessful.  All of a sudden two tornadoes come out of nowhere and Thunder Rose must face off against them.  In the last few pages of the book, Rose faces off and triumphs  by harnessing the song in her heart, given to her parents so long ago.

This book is AMAZING.  Thunder Rose as a protagonist is smart, polite, and portrays a narrative that is not often seen.  In an Author’s Note in the beginning of the book, we are introduced to the concept of the American folktale and how little voices of color are heard.  In beautiful illustrations we get to know Rose and her larger than life attitude, as well as her strength and problem-solving skills.  Rose’s parents not only immediately accept her, but they celebrate her abilities and allow Rose to be exactly who she is. Having a role model like this for young girls, showing Rose outdoors wrestling wild rampaging steers and continuing to treat everyone with love and respect is an incredible message to send to a reader.  We highly recommend this book make its way to every bookshelf imaginable!

Reflection Questions:

  • How do you think Rose got so confident in her abilities?
  • What do you think life is like on a farm?
  • How can we be accepting of those around us like Rose’s parents are of her?
  • Think of someone in your life that supports you unequivocally, how does it make you feel?

Continuing the Conversation:

  • Learn more about life in the Wild West! Often it is romanticized as a life full of grand adventures and beautiful sunsets while ignoring the harsher aspects of prairie life. What facts about living out in the West surprised you to learn?
  • Thunder Rose is a folktale, full of hyperbole. But what about the real cowgirls? Find out more about Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley, and many more still around today!
  • In the book, Rose and her family raise cattle. What other animals live on the prairie? How do they all work together to create a successful ecosystem and how can we as people help sustain wildlife all over the world?

About the Author & the Illustrator:

20308234_thJerdine Nolen is the author of Thunder Rose! She received a B.A. in special education from Northeastern Illinois University and an M.Ed. in interdisciplinary arts education from Loyola University in Chicago. She has been an educator for a number of years as a classroom teacher, curriculum writer, staff developer, family involvement specialist, and administrator. She also enjoys lecturing on a variety of topics related to books and the writing process.

“In looking over the landscape that is my work so far, I think my stories are about possibilities—possible and impossible possibilities. Possibilities are sometimes born out of great needs.”

SITE BIO PHOTO2Kadir Nelson (b. 1974) is an American artist who currently exhibits his artwork in galleries and museums nationwide and abroad. His paintings are in the private and public permanent collections of several notable institutions including the Muskegon Museum of Art, The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the International Olympic Committee, and the US House of Representatives. Nelson has also authored and illustrated several award-winning NYT Best-Selling picture books including, “WE ARE THE SHIP: The Story of Negro League Baseball” and “Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans.” Nelson states, “I feel that art’s highest function is that of a mirror, reflecting the innermost beauty and divinity of the human spirit; and is most effective when it calls the viewer to remember one’s highest self. I choose subject matter that has emotional and spiritual resonance and focuses on the journey of the hero as it relates to the personal and collective stories of people.“