Book Resources

Henry's Freedom Box Book Focus

  • Grades: 3–5

Scholastic Press executive editor Dianne Hess gives us behind-the-scenes insights into the development of Henry's Freedom Box.

This is the story of a book, and luck, and of how great it is when the stars line up and all of the pieces fall into place at exactly the right time.

Henry's Freedom Box began for me at an ALA Conference, when I was looking at a new book illustrated by Kadir Nelson. His artwork was exceptionally exciting — everything he painted seemed to live and breathe. His people were beautiful and well drawn. And he understood drama — both exterior and interior. I knew then that I wanted to work with him. And from that moment, I began to look for the perfect text for him.

Fast forward to some time in the future.

The next part begins one Saturday night, when I met up with Ellen Levine at a dinner party at Russell Freedman's home. As we chatted, Ellen told me she had written a young chapter book about Henry "Box" Brown, the fugitive slave who mailed himself to freedom in a wooden crate. I asked her to send it along to me, and first thing Monday morning, it was appeared in my email in all of its splendor. I read it quickly, and was riveted by the story. In fact, I was moved to tears. I knew the story, and in fact Henry's story had been submitted to me dozens of times in various incarnations by various authors. But I never felt those versions ever quite worked. I also wondered if the story might be even stronger in a picture book format. So I asked Ellen if she would mind recasting the text in that way. In fact, she said, it was originally written as a picture book! So she sent me her original version. In that format, the story transformed. I could see Kadir's pictures and her words together, and I realized this was the manuscript I had been looking for. Immediately, David Saylor, our Creative Director, sent Kadir the story. Kadir was familiar with the story, and coincidentally it was one that he had always wanted to illustrate.  He, too, fell in love with Ellen's text, and we signed him up for the book.

Henry's story is told and illustrated magnificently in this book. But we will let you in on some behind the scenes details — and show you two fascinating elements that were almost included — but alas, were not. 

We had thought of including an 1850s lithograph by Samuel Rowse called "The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia." This lithograph served as the inspiration for Kadir's art. Kadir used crosshatched pencil lines and applied layers of watercolor and oil paint to give the feel of that original lithograph.

We also had also thought of adding the words to a song written by Henry "Box" Brown himself -- on the back of the jacket.  It was sung to the tune of a Steven Foster song called Uncle Ned. There Brown tells the story of his ordeal. He sang this song at lectures. It is amazing to see Henry's own words on paper!  Here is the chorus:

Brown laid down the shovel and the hoe.
Down in the box he did go;
No more slave work for Henry Box Brown,
In the box by Express he did go.          

We couldn't be more pleased with the way the book turned out. And the responses we are getting have been amazing. We hope you will enjoy this moving picture book and that you will pass it along to every child you know, that they may always remember the extraordinary spirit of Henry "Box" Brown.

  • Subjects:
    Cleverness, Slavery, Underground Railroad, Abolition, Creativity and Imagination, African American, Visual Arts
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