Use these teaching resources to introduce students to the Underground Railroad, a covert network of former slaves, free black men and women, Northern abolitionists, and church leaders who helped fugitive slaves escape to freedom.
Henry Brown doesn’t know how old he is. Nobody keeps records of slaves’ birthdays. All the time he dreams about freedom, but that dream seems farther away than ever when he is torn from his family and put to work in a warehouse. Henry grows up and marries, but he is again devastated when his family is sold at the slave market.
Then one day, as he lifts a crate at the warehouse, he knows exactly what he must do: he will mail himself to the North. After an arduous journey in the crate, Henry finally has a birthday — his first day of freedom. Henry “Box” Brown became one of the most famous runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. His true story is retold with poetic grace by Ellen Levine, a Jane Addams Peace Award-winning author, and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, a Coretta Scott King Award-winning artist.
About the Author
Ellen Levine was the author of fiction and nonfiction for children, young readers, and adults that focused on important social issues and historical periods. Her rigorous research and devotion to accuracy made her stories compelling. Henry’s Freedom Box (a Caldecott Honor) is the true story of a slave who mailed himself to freedom; Darkness Over Denmark details the rescue of Jews by the Danes in World War II; A Fence Away from Freedom details the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s.
“I first read about Henry ‘Box’ Brown in William Still’s 1872 book, The Underground Railroad. An 800-page volume, it contained the stories of all the runaway slaves who came through Still’s Anti-Slavery Society office in Philadelphia,” says Ellen. “I was awed by Henry’s ingenious plan and his courage in undertaking it. That he built a box not even three feet square and mailed himself to freedom, seemed to me a remarkable idea; that he traveled in that box for some 27 hours with only a little water and a few biscuits, equally astonishing; that he survived to tell the tale, our great fortune.”
Ellen Levine died on May 26, 2012.
Teaching the Book
Henry dreams of freedom from slavery and injustice. When his family is sold away from him, he risks everything to do what he knows is right. He mails himself to freedom! This Caldecott Honor Book gives students the opportunity to make connections between the text and the illustrations in this powerful true story. Activities engage students in writing a short play based on the book, tracing Henry’s route on Google Earth, and learning how to follow the Drinking Gourd.
Subject Focus: Underground Railroad
Comprehension Focus: Make Connections Between Text and Illustrations
Language Focus: Academic and Domain-Specific Vocabulary
Get Ready to Read
The Underground Railroad
Tell students that they will read a story about a real man named Henry Brown who lived in the United States in the mid-1800s — when many African Americans were slaves in the South. Henry was born a slave and, like other brave African Americans, escaped to freedom in the North. How did they do it? They traveled on the Underground Railroad. Ask students to volunteer what they know about the Underground Railroad. Then play the following slideshow from the Scholastic website.
Preview and Predict
Ask students to look at the cover of Henry’s Freedom Box. Have them predict how Henry might escape to freedom.
Introduce readers to the vocabulary words, explaining that they all relate to the Underground Railroad and slavery. Use the Henry's Freedom Box Vocabulary Cards printable and distribute copies to students. Ask students to watch for the words as they read, using context clues to figure out their meanings. Also use the words as often as possible when discussing the book with students, encouraging them to use the words in their own oral and written language.
- Underground Railroad
Words to Know
Explain to students that you will read them a sentence that is missing a word. Ask them to hold up the vocabulary card that correctly finishes each sentence.
- Many slaves escaped from the South to the North by way of the ______. (Underground Railroad)
- Families were broken apart when children were sold at the slave ______. (market)
- Henry did not know his birthday because he was a _____. (slave)
- Henry was given to the son of his _____. (master)
- Henry hoped that he might be _____ by his master. (freed)
- A person who helped slaves escape on the Underground Railroad was called a _____. (conductor)
- His friends put Henry in the box and took him to the railroad ______. (station)
- No one knew that Henry was hiding in the box with the rest of the ______. (baggage)
As You Read
Reading the Book
Read the book aloud with fluency and expression. If possible, project the book on a whiteboard or screen. Pause every few pages and have students predict what might happen next to Henry. Later, stop to ask if their predictions were correct.
Reread the book and ask students follow along. Pause on each page and ask students to study the illustrations. Encourage them to make connections between the words in the text and the pictures and colors in the illustrations.
Big Question: Critical Thinking
Ask students to think about this question as they read and be ready to answer it when they have finished the book. Write the question on chart paper or have students write it in their reading journals. Why does Henry decide to risk his life for freedom?
Make Connections Between Text and Illustrations
The text and the illustrations in Henry’s Freedom Box complement each other and tell not just Henry’s story but the story of all slaves. Help students understand how to read an illustration for its mood and meaning and how to integrate it with the text. Project pages 4–5 on a whiteboard or screen and model for students how to connect the story detail with the illustrations.
Model: First, I’m going to read the text of the story on pages 4–5 again. Henry’s mother says that slave children are torn from their families just like leaves are torn from trees by the wind. In the picture, I see the leaves flying in the wind. Henry and his mother look sad. They are painted in dark, shadowy colors that create a mood of sadness even though the sky is bright. The text and pictures both make me realize how sad it must have been to be a slave and worry about losing people you love. I’ll write that in the column to the right.
Continue to discuss the relationship between the illustrations and the text with students. Use the organizer on the Henry's Freedom Box Making Connections printable Between Text and Illustrations to record the words in the text and connect them to what is happening in the illustration.
After You Read
Questions to Discuss
Lead students in a discussion of these focus story elements.
1. Underground Railroad
How was the Underground Railroad similar to a real railroad? How was it different? (Sample answers: The Underground Railroad had stations, conductors, and passengers, just like a real railroad. But the Underground Railroad did not have any trains or cars.)
2. Make Connections Between Text and Illustrations
Look at the last two-page illustration in the book on pages 40–41. Make connections between the words on the pages and the illustration of Henry and the people in Philadelphia. (Sample answers: The men are saying, “Welcome to Philadelphia!” They all have happy smiles on their faces and Henry looks happy, too. The colors of the picture are brighter and the mood is happy.)
3. Domain-Specific Vocabulary
Use the word freed in a sentence about your own life. (Sample answer: We are freed from school during summer vacation.)
Questions to Share
Encourage students to share their responses with a partner or small group.
Would you be able to stay quiet in a small crate for 27 hours like Henry did? (Answers will vary.)
Do you know of places in today’s world where people are enslaved or treated unequally? (Answers will vary.)
What is another book that you have read about the Underground Railroad? Compare how slaves escaped in that book with how Henry escaped. (Answers will vary.)
Don't Forget the Big Question
Give each student an opportunity to answer the big question. Encourage students to support their answers with details and evidence from the text. Tell students there is more than one right answer. Why does Henry decide to risk his life for freedom?
My Freedom Box
For Henry, freedom meant escaping slavery by going to the North. Ask students what place represents freedom for them. Why is this the place where they feel most free? Distribute copies of the Henry's Freedom Box Big Activity printable to students. Ask them to choose a place that represents freedom and then write the address or name of the location on the picture of the box. Then have them describe why they would go there on the note attached to the box.
Content Area Connections
The North Star
The goal of escaping slaves was to go North where they could be free. Challenge students to learn more about the North Star that guided slaves on their journey to freedom. Suggest that they research the group of stars that helped people find the North Star and report on what the constellation looks like and what it was called by the slaves.
Show students how to trace Henry “Box” Brown’s journey on Google Earth by going to the House Divided website of Dickinson University. Help them load the file and then trace Henry’s journey from Richmond, VA to Philadelphia, PA on Google Earth.
For an interactive role-playing game about the Underground Railroad, guide students to the National Geographic website. Click Enter to begin playing “The Journey.” Guide students to make choices as they work their way north on the Underground Railroad. Suggest that they play the game with a partner and discuss the choices as they play.
Make available to students a copy of Ellen Levine’s If You Traveled on the Underground Railroad. The book, by the same author as Henry’s Freedom Box, is a nonfiction text written in an engaging question-and-answer format. Encourage students to read the book and compare how information is presented in the two books.
Reading and Writing Connection
Write a Play Script
Challenge students to turn the story of Henry’s Freedom Box into a short play. Pair students with a partner to write a script. Suggest that students choose five or six scenes from the book that tell Henry’s story. Then ask them to write several lines of narration and/or dialogue for each of the scenes. Remind them to first make a list of the scenes and the characters in each scene and then write the dialogue. Ask students to work together to produce one version of the play.
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