Review of a Book Illustrated by Kadir Nelson


Levine, Ellen, and Kadir Nelson (illustrator). Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad. New York: Scholastic, 2007. ISBN 9780439777339


In Henry’s Freedom Box, young Henry and his family work as slaves. Henry longs to be free, but his master sends Henry to work for his son instead. As a slave for the master’s son, Henry grows up working in a tobacco factory and meets a girl, Nancy, who is working under another master. Both masters allow Henry and Nancy to marry, and they have three children together. But when Nancy’s master loses his money, Nancy and the children are sold and taken away forever. Henry decides that he’ll do anything to leave slavery behind. With the help of a sympathetic white man, Henry is nailed in a box and mailed to Philadelphia where he becomes free at last.


The story of Henry is a story that children won’t soon forget. Its plot moves forward at a quick and steady pace, yet never glosses over the harsh realities of Henry’s life as a slave. Readers watch as Henry is taken from his family of origin and placed in a harsh environment where he can be beaten, as his wife and children are sold away, and as he mails himself to freedom nailed inside a box. However, while Henry’s Freedom Box makes the harsh realities of slavery clear to young readers, the text is written in a tactful and age-appropriate manner. The writing style is engaging and easy to understand, making it accessible for its intended audience. There’s no doubt that Ellen Levine makes good stories.

But the best part of the book is its illustrations. Illustrator Kadir Nelson’s crosshatched pencil lines covered with layers of watercolor and oil paint practically burst from the page, bringing the details of each scene into sharp focus. Facial expressions are drawn with especially astonishing clarity, driving home the emotions that Henry is feeling—his anger as he works in the tobacco factory, his delight as he talks with Nancy for the first time, his horror and heartbreak as he learns of the selling of Nancy and the children, and his determination to find his way to freedom. Pictures will invite readers to engage with Henry’s story, to triumph with Henry in his deliverance, and to develop a deeper understanding of a dark part of America’s history. This book would make an excellent addition to any picture book collection for older readers.


Caldecott Medal Nominee (2008)

Pennsylvania Young Readers’ Choice Award for Grades 3­–6 (2010)

California Young Readers Medal for Picture Books for Older Readers (2012)

Comstock Read Aloud Book Award Nominee (2008)

From Publisher’s Weekly: “Powerful illustrations will make readers feel as if they have gained insight into a resourceful man and his extraordinary story.”

From School Library Journal: “This book solidly conveys the generalities of Henry Brown’s story.”

From Kirkus: “Related in measured, sonorous prose that makes a perfect match for the art, this is a story of pride and ingenuity that will leave readers profoundly moved.”


Read with other picture books about Henry “Box” Brown. Compare and contrast the differences in each story.

  • Weatherford, Carole Boston, and Michele Wood (illustrator). Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom. ISBN 9780763691561
  • Walker, Sally M., and Sean Qualls (illustrator). Freedom Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown. ISBN 9780060583101

Read with other Caldecott nominees of 2008:

  • Seeger, Laura V. First the Egg. ISBN 9781596432727
  • Willems, Mo. Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity. ISBN 9781423102991

Read with other award-winning books illustrated by Kadir Nelson and discuss how the art is similar and different in each book:

  • Alexander, Kwame, and Kadir Nelson (illustrator). The Undefeated. ISBN 9781328780966
  • Nelson, Kadir. Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans. ISBN 9780061730740
  • Nolen, Jerdine, and Kadir Nelson (illustrator). Thunder Rose. ISBN 9780152060060

Read with other picture books as an introduction to the Underground Railroad:

  • Tate, Don. William Still and His Freedom Stories: The Father of the Underground Railroad. ISBN 9781561459353
  • Cole, Henry. Unspoken: A Story From the Underground Railroad. ISBN 9780545399975
  • Stroud, Bettye, and Erin S. Bennett (illustrator). The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom. ISBN 9780439851176

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.