Unspoken by Henry Cole
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Cindy: I feel as if I shouldn’t really say anything about this wordless picture book, Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad (Scholastic 2012), other than to urge you to set your eyes on a copy and “read” it with a child. The story opens with a quilt draped over a farm rail fence and then widens to a group of Rebel soldiers on horseback passing a young girl leading a cow, and accompanied by her cat. Another page turn reveals a scared cat now in the girl’s comforting arms and a close-up of the cow, his wide unblinking eye watching the men pass by. When the girl is in the barn gathering root vegetables, she and the cat are startled and the girl’s eyes lead the readers’ eyes to a pile of cornstalks in the corner of the hen house. A careful eye will notice the large eye peering back from the depths of the pile. At this point adult readers will know what is happening, but a young child may be just as frightened as the girl who runs back to the house. But the girl in the book knows that it is a runaway slave hiding in the barn, and rather than turning him in, she sneaks food to him, and her kind act begets a reciprocal kind act, and an unspoken friendship is born.
The focus on eyes continues through the book, used with great effect in Cole’s quiet graphite illustrations. Unspoken will speak to readers who are willing to listen rather than talk.
Lynn: Picture books are all about telling a story through illustrations and Henry Cole does that admirably in this beautiful new book. Like many wonderful books it will leave readers with as many questions as answers and isn’t that a grand thing in this age of instant certainty? Here’s a book that rewards careful examination and reflection. Young readers may need some explanation of our country’s history – and isn’t this a grand way to help children understand history as the story of a people rather than just dull facts?
As a pre-reading activity, ask children if it is possible to communicate without talking. After reading the book, ask if they think the girl and the hidden person communicated? What did they “say” to each other? This is a wonderful lap book and it is large enough to use fairly well with a whole class. Either way, it speaks volumes.