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A Story From the Underground Railroad

Henry Cole

Starred Review from Publisher's Weekly
Starred Review from School Library Journal
A young girl's courage is tested in this haunting, wordless story. When a farm girl discovers a runaway slave hiding in the barn, she is at once startled and frightened. But the stranger's fearful eyes weigh upon her conscience, and she must make a difficult choice. Will she have the courage to help him? Unspoken gifts of humanity unite the girl and the runaway as they each face a journey: one following the North Star, the other following her heart. Henry Cole's unusual and original rendering of the Underground Railroad speaks directly to our deepest sense of compassion.


A farm child and a fugitive make an unspoken connection in this suspenseful, wordless Civil War episode. Drawn in monochrome pencil on rough-textured paper, the broad, full-page and full-spread rural scenes give the encounter a shadowy, atmospheric setting. Going about her chores after watching a detachment of mounted soldiers beneath a Confederate flag trot by, the child is startled and fearful to realize that someone is hiding in a pile of cornstalks in the storehouse. Rather than mention this to the (seemingly) oblivious adults in her extended family or, later, to the hunters who come by with a reward poster, she courageously ventures out by herself, carrying small gifts of food. Never seen beyond a glimpse of an eye amid the leaves or through a knothole, the fugitive at last departs as silently as he (or she) came—leaving a corn doll in return for the girl’s kindness. In a ruminative afterword, Cole reflects on his Virginia family’s own connections to the war and, though silent about the signal quilt he hangs on the farmyard’s fence in the illustrations, explains the significance of the Big Dipper visible in the nighttime sky. Moving and emotionally charged, the book is capped with a powerful close-up of the child’s face on the rear cover with the legend “What would you do if you had the chance to help a person find freedom?” (Picture book. 7-10) —Kirkus Review (*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. Ages 3–7. —Publisher's Weekly (*Starred Review*)

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 —School Library Journal (*Starred Review*)