Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole

Recommended Grades: 3-5

A young girl’s courage is tested in this hauntingly beautiful, wordless picture book.  Beginning with the parallel between the title (of a wordless book) and the characters (who never speak), Cole has created a gorgeous rendering of the unspoken heroes of the Civil War   

Lesson Idea:  


Mentor Text, Civil War/Character Actions/Wordless Picture Books: Unspoken: A Story From the Underground Railroad can be used as a mentor text for a number of techniques.  As a wordless picture book, discuss how the author conveys the story in pictures only.  How would the story change if words were added?  Analyze the relationship between the characters.  What can you learn about their relationship through pictures only? Most books we read about the Civil War speaks to the hardships of war.  This book speaks to the bravery of every-day people.  Use Unspoken: A Story From the Underground Railroad as part of a unit on the Civil War to see both sides of the issue.  This would also pair well with Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine or Freedom Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown by Sally M. Walker in a unit on bravery during the Civil War.

©2013 by Dawn Little for Picture This! Teaching with Picture Books. All Amazon links are affiliate links and may result in my receiving a small commission. This is at no additional cost to you.

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Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass

Recommended Grades: 3-5

A young Frederick Douglass would not allow slavery to stop him from learning, so he asked his master’s wife to teach him to read. Once he learned how to read, those words would set him free.  This picture book is based on Frederick Douglass’ s own Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.      

Lesson Idea:  


Mentor Text: Biography: Read aloud Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass as a biography mentor text or as part of a unit on slavery or the Civil War.  Discuss Frederick Douglass’s amazing life and all of his accomplishments as a result of his persistence.  Pair this book with other books about Douglass such as Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship or Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship or with other picture books related to the Civil War and slavery such as Henry’s Freedom Box, Freedom Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown, and Just in Time, Abraham Lincoln.

©2012 by Dawn Little for Picture This! Teaching with Picture Books. All Amazon links are affiliate links and may result in my receiving a small commission. This is at no additional cost to you.

Freedom Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown by Sally M. Walker

Recommended Grades: 4-6

Henry “Box” Brown was a slave in the 1800’s on a plantation near Richmond, Va.  Song was an important part of his life and he sang for all aspects of it.  When Henry’s wife and children were sold to another master, Henry’s song stopped.  And in the silence, he thought of an ingenious way to escape slavery and find freedom.   

Lesson Idea:


Mentor Texts: Read aloud Freedom Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown in conjunction with Henry’s Freedom Box when discussing the Underground Railroad or the Civil War.  Why did Henry’s plan work?  Did others try after him?  Why was music an important influence in the lives of slaves?  Discuss these questions and encourage students to research to see if answers to these questions can be found.

 Six Traits

Idea Development: I have read several picture books that have been written as the result of a true event (see Ducky or Henry’s Freedom Box).  I love how authors read about something that is factual and turn it into a story that is accessible to kids of all ages.  After reading aloud Freedom Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown (and other examples), ask students to brainstorm a list of historical events in their writer’s notebook.  When students are looking for a writing piece, ask them to look further into the background of a historical event of their choice.  You never know what they might find!

Note: The author’s note in the back provides detail as to how her version of Henry “Box” Brown’s life story came to fruition.  Additionally, an excerpt from an actual letter of the man who met Henry “Box” Brown on his arrival to Pennsylvania is also provided.

©2012 by Dawn Little for Picture This! Teaching with Picture Books. All Amazon links are affiliate links and may result in my receiving a small commission. This is at no additional cost to you.

Just in Time, Abraham Lincoln by Patricia Polacco

Recommended Grades: 4-6


When Michael and Derek visit Harpers Ferry with their grandmother, they have no idea the kind of “game” they will be invited to play.  The mysterious museum director tells them they can walk through a door, and before they know it they have walked straight into 1862. 

Lesson Idea:

Historical Fiction:

Mentor Texts: Read aloud Just in Time, Abraham Lincoln as part of a unit on historical fiction or as part of a unit on the Civil War.  If you are teaching a unit on historical fiction, choose several picture books and have students analyze the setting of the stories.  Why is the setting important in historical fiction? 

A great book to tie into a Civil War unit is Henry’s Freedom Box.    

Note: Polacco’s books, Pink and Say and January’s Sparrow would also work nicely with a unit on the Civil War. 

©2012 by Dawn Little for Picture This! Teaching with Picture Books. All Amazon links are affiliate links and may result in my receiving a small commission. This is at no additional cost to you.

Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine

December Theme:  Nonfiction

A true story of Henry Brown, a run away slave on the Underground Railroad, who found an ingenious way to find freedom. . . he shipped himself in a box.

Henry’s Freedom Box (Caldecott Honor Book) is a wonderful book to use as part of a unit on The Underground Railroad. You can use this book to activate your students’ background knowledge about slavery and The Underground Railroad. It’s a fantastic read with an inspirational story.  I previously wrote a post about using this book to teach students about asking questions.  I would also use the book to teach a lesson on making predictions.     

Lesson Idea: Making Predictions

Before beginning a unit on The Underground Railroad, read aloud this book.  Prior to reading aloud the book or showing the book to the class, ask students if they can determine what a Freedom Box is.  Ask them to draw a Freedom Box.  What does it mean to them?  Next, ask students to make predictions based on the title and the cover picture.  After reading aloud the book, ask if any predictions were confirmed.  Were students able to determine what  Freedom Box was?  Use the book to begin a historical inquiry into the topic of The Underground Railroad.

©2009 by Dawn Little for Picture This! Teaching with Picture Books. All Amazon links are affiliate links and may result in my receiving a small commission. This is at no additional cost to you.