Author: Ellen Levine
Illustrator: Kadir Nelson
Grade Level: 3-5
Summary: Henry's Freedom Box is about a boy born into slavery who struggles to find freedom. As the boy grows older he is sold to another man, and therefore, torn away from his mother. As Henry goes through the motions of day-to-day slave life, he meets a woman and falls in love. They are lucky enough, as slaves that is, to live together and raise a family. To Henry's horror, his family is eventually sold and lost forever. His excruciating hardships and tragic losses motivate him to become his own hero and seek the freedom every "man" deserves. With the help of some friends, Henry stuffs himself into a wooden box and endures a terrifying, yet successful, journey to freedom in Philadelphia.
Element 3: Exploring Issues of Social Injustice: I believe Henry's Freedom Box presents a deep and vivid depiction of slavery. Element 3 of SJE requires teachers to move past the celebration of diversity and explore how diversity has impacted different groups of people. In this case, diversity has negatively affected the lives of African American through racism and slavery. Through its words and pictures, this book illustrates the horrors of slavery and the "not-so-happy ending" for slaves who eventually reached freedom. Most textbooks provide a sense of relief to students at the end of slavery chapters by talking about the Underground Railroad and the lives of freed slaves. This book paints the reality to students, so that they can understand the way the past continues to oppress certain groups today and forever shape racism. While Henry reached freedom by the end of the story, he still lost a great deal--his mother, wife, children, and his own childhood. This is the sad reality that students must grasp to truly empathize with others and move towards the next element of social justice.
Classroom Use: I would use this book in my classroom as an introduction to the Underground Railroad portion of a slavery unit. First, I would ask my students to create a K-W-L chart about slavery and the Underground Railroad individually. Then, I'd bring the class together to pool ideas for the class chart. After discussing the chart, I would proceed with a read-aloud of Henry's Freedom Box. Students would be given ten minutes to reflect on the story and write down their emotions as both a listener and as someone "in Henry's shoes" in their journals. To extend the activity, I would assign a writing assignment that combines the book and students' personal journal entries. Students would work over the course of a week to produce a creative writing piece on Henry's new life as a free man. For example, some students might write about the jobs or activities Henry pursues, while others might focus on his decisions and "what's next" for a man who has lost his family.