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Unspoken: A Story From the Underground Railroad Hardcover – November 1, 2012

4.6 out of 5 stars 48 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

From the title on, silence and secrets create stirring drama in this wordless picture book about a child who helps a runaway slave escape. The full-page charcoal-and-pencil drawings in sepia tones show the girl busy with her chores on her family’s farm. Then she glimpses someone watching her in the barn. She barely sees the runaway; the pictures show just an eye. She never speaks with the hidden figure, but she leaves food, wrapped in cloth, even as terrifying, armed slave hunters on horseback show her family a poster: “Wanted. Escaped. Reward.” Then the fugitive disappears in the night, but the girl finds a doll made from the star-patterned cloth that covered the food she had brought. At the story’s end, the girl lies in bed watching the stars in the night sky. A long afterword adds context to the historical setting, and children will be moved to return to the images many times and fill in their own words. Grades 2-4. --Hazel Rochman


"Gorgeously rendered in soft, dark pencils, this wordless book is reminiscent of the naturalistic pencil artistry of Maurice Sendak and Brian Selznick, but unique in its accurate re-creation of a Civil War-era farm in northwestern Virginia. On the dedication page, readers see a star quilt on a split rail fence, symbolizing the North Star. Confederate soldiers arrive on horseback and a farmer’s daughter’s lingering gaze betrays her intuition of their visit. She goes about her duties of feeding the animals and gathering harvested vegetables. In the recently harvested cornstalks propped up in the corner of the barn, she hears a rustling and sees an eye. Superb visual storytelling shows her hands time and time again offering a piece of corn bread, apple pie, a leg of chicken, each time on a small checkered kerchief, to the young, hidden runaway. The soldiers return with a poster: “Wanted! Escaped! Reward!” These words call out in the otherwise wordless book, and readers feel their power. Parallels between the fugitive and the farmer’s daughter establish themselves visually when the latter gazes from behind a door, terrified at this threat. An author’s note details the Civil War stories Cole heard as a young boy and underscores his intention of showing not the division, anger, and violence of the Civil War, but “the courage of everyday people who were brave in quiet ways.” - Sara Lissa Paulson, American Sign Language and English Lower School PS 347, New York City, Starred review

"Cole’s (A Nest for Celeste) beautifully detailed pencil drawings on cream-colored paper deftly visualize a family’s ruggedly simple lifestyle on a Civil War–era homestead, while facing stark, ethical choices. Beginning with an illustration of a star-patterned quilt hanging over a fence (such quilts, Cole writes in his author’s note, signified a “safe house” for runaway slaves), the wordless story follows a girl who becomes aware of someone hiding in the barn. In one scene, she glances nervously over her shoulder at an unexpected noise; the next shows a closeup of cornhusks, a frightened eye peering through; the girl dashes from the barn in terror in a third illustration. After pondering her discovery, she stealthily delivers food wrapped in a checkered napkin on multiple occasions. Household adults are none the wiser, and following a close call with a pair of bounty hunters, the girl returns to the barn and discovers a cornhusk doll, left behind as thanks. Cole conjures significant tension and emotional heft (his silent storytelling calls to mind Brian Selznick’s recent work) in this powerful tale of quiet camaraderie and courage." - Publishers Weekly starred review

“[D]esigned to present youngsters with a moral choice…[T]he author, a former teacher, clearly intended ‘Unspoken’ to be a challenging book, its somber sepia tone drawings establish a mood of foreboding.” - New York Times Book Review


The latest book club pick from Oprah
"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead is a magnificent novel chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. See more

Product Details

  • Age Range: 4 - 8 years
  • Grade Level: Preschool - 3
  • Series: Unspoken
  • Hardcover: 40 pages
  • Publisher: Scholastic Press; 10.2.2012 edition (November 1, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0545399971
  • ISBN-13: 978-0545399975
  • Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 11 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #72,696 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Kate Coombs VINE VOICE on January 19, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Making a picture book that's wordless is usually more of a storytelling choice than a symbolic one, but here the wordlessness is both, as the title implies. This is a story about keeping quiet for all the right reasons, about keeping a secret to keep someone safe. It is also about not needing to speak to help someone out--which makes me think of quiet kindnesses in everyday life.

As our story begins, a young farm girl bringing the cow home from the pasture watches five men pass on horseback. The first one is carrying a Confederate flag, so we understand that this story takes place in the South during the Civil War era. The girl goes to feed the chickens, and then her mother sends her to fetch the eggs from a small barn. As she does so, she is frightened to realize that someone is hiding in a big stack of corn stalks laid in one corner of the barn, perhaps to dry for feed.

The girl runs back to the house, but even before she goes inside, she starts to calm down and think about what this means. She does not say anything to her family, but after dinner she goes out to the barn with some food for the fugitive. Perhaps my favorite part about this story is a spread showing different hands holding different food items on the same checked cloth--showing that each member of the family separately slips out to the barn to feed the runaway slave hiding there.

The next day two men come to the farm looking for a runaway slave, but the girl's family sends them away. That night the runaway is gone, but she has left a simple gift behind for the girl, something she has made from the checked napkin and the corn husks.

A good picture book is like a poem. It is hard to tell a story well in just a few words or just a few pictures, but Cole succeeds beautifully.
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Format: Hardcover
There is a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. This book without text proves that. With incredible pencil illustrations the story is told of a young farm girl that discovers a runaway slave and helps in any small way that she can. Knowing these events took place again and again in history, and some not as successful as this, makes this a very moving book. It is incredibly powerful and touching. This book was written to honor a family's oral tradition of stories about the civil war and life in and around some of those events. It is a story told without words, and two characters that communicate and develop a bond without words. This book was incredible and one of my favorite books this year!
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Format: Hardcover
As an elementary school librarian, I have thoroughly enjoyed sharing Henry Cole's family background (found at the back of the book) and his exquisite portrayal of the emotions, behaviors, and choices of a little girl during slavery in America. Cole shows the fear and questioning of the girl who ultimately chose to remain silent after discovering a runaway slave in the corn crib. But she not only remained quite and did not seek the reward for the runaway slave, but the girl helps the runaway slave and receives a beautiful thank-you in return- all being "Unspoken".
I have found something new every time I read it to a new class. The pain, fear, struggle, and ultimately the love and kindness of the little girl and the runaway slave are palpable. This is a great discussion starter on slavery in America, Abolitionist, the Underground Railroad, compassion, and courage for 3rd-8th grade students. I'm surprised and disappointed that this book did not win the Caldecott Medal or get recognized as an Honor Book, but so very glad that I read it and have been able to share it with students and teachers.
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Format: Hardcover
It is because this book does not have words that I believe it is perfect for a critical conversation about race and identity in this country. Yes, the little girl is white and her family is white and the slave chasers are white. It is equally true that the runaway slave hiding in the corn is black. The wordlessness of the book affords opportunities to discuss concepts relative to slavery as well as bravery, privilege, race, culture, identity, etc. We can say this book perpetuates various cultural stereotypes but the truth of the matter is... there were brave people, both black and white who risked their lives to do the right thing. Telling another story, one that pits blacks against whites, serves another agenda. As an educator and an advocate, I believe this book would be appropriate in a culturally responsive classroom. Use it as a catalyst for problem-posing or as an invitation for critical inquiry. Why did the author choose a little girl instead of a boy, for example? Invite all children to write their own version - one that empowers them and tells their story. Your students can also retell the story from the slave's perspective. As the author writes..."make this story your own..." If used appropriately and with regard to the cultural identity of the students in one's class, I believe this book could be a powerful tool.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was surprised to see a negative review for Unspoken. It is listed by Publisher's Weekly as one of the best books of 2012, was a serious contender for the Caldecott medal and has received starred reviews from numerous library publications including Kirkus and School Library Journal. I have used this book with my elementary library classes in grades three through five. I love how it has generated dialogue about the evils of slavery, the need to help those in distress and the importance of understanding history to avoid repeating its mistakes. Not one child has said that the little girl saved the slave. They understand that she chose to show compassion by helping. Of course, I would not just hand this book to a child and expect them to understand the story. It's a picture book. Picture books are meant to be shared with children by adults who love them. --Judy Houser, Librarian, Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy, Melbourne, Florida
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