Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole is a wordless picture book set in the American Civil War. It tells the tale of a young girl who one day, whilst out in a storage shed, comes across a runaway slave/soldier. She helps the runaway for a couple of nights with parcels of different sorts and a touching story ensues. There is a powerful line at the back cover of the book coupled with a moving portrait of the young protagonist, the line poses the question before you begin to read-‘What would you do if you had the chance to help a person find freedom?
The story is exquisitely illustrated, there is no colour in any of the pictures. The book is drawn using only pencil and sketching, it is also published using yellow paper which gives the book an historic feel. Cole’s use of line and shading to illustrate the story is impressive. Body language and his ability to show the fear hope that exists in a characters eye’s is breathtaking. We never see the runaway, all we see is his eyes among the corn crop peeking out fearfully each time looking for help. Body language and the way it’s shaped tell so much in this book and Cole builds up a tension and suspense through this.
The fact that this is a wordless picture book makes the story ambiguous in a way. This tale could be applied to any war setting around the world. There is a stronger reason why it is wordless and Henry Cole writes an explanation at the back of the book giving his thoughts on the story. He states:
‘I wanted to make this a wordless book. The two main characters in the story are both brave, have a strong bond, and communicate with great depth. Yet, both are silent. They speak without words. Because I made only the pictures, I’m hoping you will write the words and make this story your own-filling in all that has been unspoken.’
The beauty of a wordless book like this is that children will actually tell you the story as they ‘read’ the pictures with you. However I feel a young child would not really understand the context of this book. Cole gives an historical explanation of the book from his own family’s experience in the Civil War in Virginia. He also doesn’t allude to whether the runaway is a slave or a soldier on the run.
I love this book, it is minimalist but yet full of complexity, I admire the way it lacks colour, therefore, the book lends itself more to the feel of an American Civil War story. It put me right in the middle of a story full of tension, courage and bravery. The story underlines the point that some of the real acts of bravery during wars are not by soldiers or politicians, but by the civilians, no matter how young they are.
I have never found this book on any shelves in bookshops in Europe or never mentioned on any recommended reading lists for picture books. It is a book that should have won lots of awards and have pride of place among the other greats of the picture book world. It would especially appeal to an American readership and would be an excellent book for educational purposes to explain how war is not all about violence and death. I would strongly urge you to order this book in your local library or buy it online, you will not regret it.