Center for Children's Literature Blog

Children’s Book Committee – April 2021 Pick

Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom
Written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Michele Wood

After his enslaved family is sold, Henry Brown decides to mail himself to freedom with the help of his friends. Colorful mixed-media collage illustrations. (9-12)

Our Young Reviewer Says:

This distinctive book of poetry tells the story of Henry Brown’s life. Brown was born into slavery.  As an adult, he escaped from slavery with the help of the Underground Railroad, by getting himself sent north in a wooden box.  The poems portray Brown’s enslavement, loss of his wife and children–who were sold further south–and journey to freedom in sorrowful yet hopeful tones. As a narrative, Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom is very gripping. Brown’s nineteenth-century voice is blended with modern vocabulary, causing each poem to be both simple and powerful.

In “Crop,” author Carole Boston Weatherford writes,

“In March, sew tobacco seeds in plant beds./Fertilize with fish meal…plow row by row./When the plants bloom, break off the tops.”

Readers can always discover a new detail from re-reading a stanza. For example, what appears to be a poem about planting, seems really to be about the nature of slavery itself. The numerous metaphors have both poetic beauty and a haunting, tragic sense. For example, the lines

“Slavery is a cruel wind, she says,/Sweeping children away from parents,/Scattering families far and wide./She shivers and holds me close,”

Here, Weatherford compares slavery to wind and enslaved peoples to leaves, which I could not stop thinking about.

Almost all the poems are structured to reflect the cubic shape of the box in which Henry Brown hid, while he was mailed from Richmond to Philadelphia, hoping that he could “pass as” dry goods. I find this use of such six-lined poetic sextets, which keep reminding readers about the box throughout the book, to be both creative and brilliant. Weatherford’s wording is thoughtfully chosen and the chronological order of poems is well planned. Still, I would have loved it if the book was even longer, so that more time could be centered on Brown’s journey in the box, as this escape is the climax of his life.

Weatherford’s use of unerring line breaks, varying sentence lengths, and astonishing imagery captures Brown’s character flawlessly. Any reader can feel the pain and promise of his journey, and the author’s passion. Weatherford truly brings Brown’s odyssey to life, from details about daily experiences, to historical events told from his first-person perspective. I believe this book should be added to every school and public library.

Personally, the illustrations were my favorite part of the book. The original illustrations in Box truly allowed me to picture the poems–to see a story. The book consists of gorgeous illustrations perfectly complementing each poem’s narrative. Similar to the poems, illustrations blend into simple, memorable, and abstract art. Illustrator Michele Wood has a remarkable sense of color and texture, truly making this book appeal and allure the reader. Michele Woods informs that the palette she chose “includes blue, green, pink, red, and neutrals, which are colors from the 1800s,” (A Note From The Illustrator). In conclusion, I feel the illustrations add an enormous amount of depth to the plot, and work beautifully with the poems to bring Henry Brown’s unforgettable story to life.

–Eliana, 14, Manhattan, NY.

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See our Monthly Picks Archive 2012–2018, and our Monthly Picks 2019–present.