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Friday, November 16, 2012

Freedom Song, written by Sally Walker and illustrated by Sean Qualls. Harper, 2012. $19.99 ages 6 and up

"Most of Henry's songs were loud, but his favorite song wasn't. At sleep time, when his candle blew dark, Henry sang his freedom song. But silently, inside his head. Its freedom-land, family, stay-all-together words soothed Henry's greatest fear: the fear that the Master would sell him."

The first time that I knew anything about Henry Brown was when I read Ellen Levine's award-winning Henry's Freedom Box, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Orchard, 2007). Because I have an irrational fear of small spaces, I will never forget the images of Henry stuffed inside the box that carried him to freedom. I cannot imagine doing such a thing, and living to tell the tale.

I was keen to know more and delighted when Sally M. Walker's Freedom Song arrived in the mail. It's hard to think about the sadness that losing his wife and children must have caused Henry. He had grown up in a happy and supportive family, despite being a slave:

"Mama's cooking grew Henry tall. Papa's stories grew Henry smart.
The whole family's love grew Henry strong. Even though they were
slaves on Master's plantation."

Henry always had time for singing and playing when he was a boy. His freedom song was personal and silent, and helped to soothe his fears of being sold away from his family. His song was one of promise...where families would never be parted. Once grown, he was sent to another tobacco farm and missed his family tremendously. Meeting Nancy gave him hope for the future.

As his family grew, Henry kept singing his many songs and doing what was right by them:

"Henry pleased them with piggyback rides. He sweet-talked them with stories. He kissed away their tears and hurts and taught them right from wrong. Family songs hushed Henry's freedom song. And Henry's heart was full."

When his family was taken from him, his songs died in his throat until he had only one song left:

"His freedom song. And its think, plan, take-yourself-to-freedom-land words were getting stronger every day."

He knew that the only way he could find his family was to first find freedom. His plan was in place, and he put it into action. Still, his songs kept him company for the long journey and the harrowing conditions of travel. Once freed from the box that had got him to freedom-land, Henry had a new song to sing...a song of thanksgiving.

Beautifully written and accompanied by Sean Qualls' texture-rich collages, this story will stun and inform its readers concerning the fears faced by so many slaves and their families. Their bravery and determination in spite of the real danger that came from running (or mailing, in this case) is as inspiring for today's audience as it was in the past and will be in the future.
This is historical fiction at its best, placing readers realistically in past events to help them come to an understanding of slavery and the conditions that were prevalent. The inclusion of a letter written by J. M. McKim to whom Henry mailed himself brings history alive for readers who share this book.

Henry spent the rest of his life telling his story and speaking out against slavery. There are no reports that he ever found Nancy or their children.

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