Posted in ELA Instruction, Elementary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Module 6: Henry’s Freedom Box

Title: Henry’s Freedom Box

Author: Ellen Levine

ISBN: 978-0-439-77733-9

Publisher: Scholastic, Incorporated


A true story of the underground railroad, Henry’s Freedom Box, tells the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a slave who did whatever it took to gain his freedom. Henry was fortunate to grow up working as a slave for a master who was kind to him. But Henry’s master fell ill, and soon called for Henry and his mother. Henry wondered if his master was going to grant them freedom, but he just gave him to his son instead. Henry quickly realized that his new master was not kind like his old one, and though he was good at his job, Henry was frequently beaten by the boss. As a young man, Henry met his wife, Nancy, and started a family. They lived in happiness for a while, but soon, Nancy’s master lost his fortune, and agreed to sell off his best slaves. Nancy and her children were taken away, and Henry was left alone and desperate. Henry devised a plan to runaway and find his family. He made contact with the underground railroad, and decided to hop in a box, and mail himself to a free state in the north. Henry’s mission was successful. He gained his freedom and a new life.

Levine, E. & Nelson, K. (2007). Henry’s freedom box. United States: Scholastic, Incorporated.

My Impressions:

This is an absolutely beautiful book. Nelson’s illustrations are exquisite, and do a wonderful job of enhancing the story. Levine tells her story expertly, with simple kid friendly language, making this book friendly for readers of all ages. I enjoyed Henry Brown’s story, and was definitely on the edge of my seat when he decided to mail himself to freedom with only a few biscuits for food along the way. This sets a suspenseful image in the mind, and very much allows the reader to the desperation that Henry feels at the loss of his family. My only complaint is that the author concludes the story without telling the reader whether Henry was ever able to find and free his family. Even the author’s note on Henry Brown at the end of the book did not mention anything about his family.  The story felt incomplete without knowing the fate of Nancy and the kids, and prompted me to do my own research on the subject, simply to satisfy my own curiosity. I suppose if it prompts my students to do the same, encouraging them to research things that interest them, I can’t be too upset by the author’s choice to make the reader dig for more information. I highly recommend this book to readers of all ages.

For Use in the Library:

Henry’s Freedom Box would make an excellent addition to any library. Whether it is for pleasure reading or a classroom lesson, readers of every age will fall in love with Henry “Box” Brown. Use this title as an opening library lesson during black history month. Pair it with titles such as Salt in His Shoes, by Deloris Jordan, or My Brother Martin, by Christine King Farris.


In a true story that is both heartbreaking and joyful, Levine recounts the history of Henry “Box” Brown, born into slavery. Henry works in a tobacco factory, marries another slave, and fathers three children; but then his family is sold, and Henry realizes he will never see them again. With nothing to lose, Henry persuades his friend James and a sympathetic white man to mail him in a wooden box to Philadelphia and freedom. Levine maintains a dignified, measured tone, telling her powerful story through direct, simple language. A note at the end explains the historical basis for the fictionalized story. Accompanying Levine’s fine, controlled telling are pencil, watercolor, and oil paint illustrations by Kadir Nelson that resonate with beauty and sorrow. When Henry’s mother holds him as a child on her lap, they gaze out at bright autumn leaves, and the tenderness is palpable, even as she calls to his attention the leaves that “are torn from the trees like slave children are torn from their families.” There is no sugarcoating here, and Henry is not miraculously reunited with his wife and children; however, the conclusion, as Henry celebrates his new freedom, is moving and satisfying. S.D.L.

Lempke, S. D. (2007). [Review of the book Henry’s freedom box, by E. Levine & K. Nelson]. Horn Book Magazine, 83(2), 186-187. Retrieved from

Posted in Elementary Fiction, Fantasy/Science Fiction, Module 5

Module 5: Doll Bones

Title: Doll Bones

Author: Holly Black

ISBN: 978-1-4169-6398-1

Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books


Poppy and her friends love to write adventure stories and role play with their dolls. One day, Zach’s dad decides that he is too old to be playing with dolls, and throws all of Zach’s figures away. Instead of telling Poppy, Zach claims that he no longer wants to play the game. Poppy is crushed and angry, and begs Zach to play one last time. That night, Poppy dreams that her mother’s antique porcelain doll tells visits her in her sleep and begs her for help. She claims that the doll is made of a young girl’s bones, and her spirit cannot rest until her bones are buried in the cemetery with her family. Poppy begs her friends to help her lay the doll’s bones to rest, and the three friends embark on an adventure to discover the identity of the spirit. They soon discover the story of a girl who was said to have been murdered by her uncle. The three friends uncover the mystery behind the murder, and find the cemetery where the spirit wants to be buried. They bury the doll’s bones where they belong, and continue home to resume their lives.

Black, H. (2013). Doll bones. United States: Margaret K. McElderry Books.

My Impressions:

This is a unique story that most middle grade readers will enjoy. It’s not my favorite of Holly Black’s books, but the characters are dynamic, and they deal with their problems in very believable ways. For example, Zach’s reaction to his father throwing away his action figures is completely believable of a boy his age. So is Poppy’s reaction to Zach’s withdrawal from the game. Furthermore, the plot is interesting and flows smoothly from event to event. There do not seem to be any plot elements that are left untied. The ghost story is compelling, and leaves the reader guessing until the climax of the story. The ending of the story leaves the reader wondering if there ever really was a ghost, or can the events of the story be chalked up to a little girl’s over active imagination.  It isn’t overly scary, so even readers who shy away from ghost stories will likely enjoy this title. Overall, I would recommend this title to readers looking for a good ghost story, but not an epic scare.

For Use in the Library:

This book has a rather compelling cover, and would work great as a book to put on display on a Halloween reads shelf. It will draw readers toward the display, and likely cause them to spend some time perusing the other titles on the shelf as well.


Gr 4-7–At 12 years old, lifelong friends Zach, Poppy, and Alice are ferociously clinging to their childhoods. Using old Barbies, pirate action figures, dolls from Good Will, and their imaginations, they have created an exciting world of characters in an elaborate game. Figuring heavily in their plotline is the Queen, an antique doll ofbone china that belongs to Poppy’s mother and is strictly off-limits to the kids. She’s also incredibly creepy. When Zach’s dad throws away his action figures, the boy is so devastated that he ends the game abruptly, leaving the girls hurt and confused. Shortly thereafter, Poppy reveals that the Queen is made of the bones of a dead girl named Eleanor who has been communicating with her at night. The doll appears to be filled with Eleanor’s ashes, and she has promised Poppy that she will make their lives miserable if they don’t journey to Ohio, find her grave, and bury her properly. After much persuading, Zach and Alice agree to the journey. The Queen gets scarier and scarier as unexplained events begin to occur along the way. Black has created protagonists who readers will care about, and amusing secondary characters, like a pink-haired librarian and a crazy bus passenger who seems to be able to see Eleanor. This novel is a chilling ghost story, a gripping adventure, and a heartwarming look at the often-painful pull of adulthood. Black-and-white illustrations actually tone down the scare factor a little, making this a perfect starter story for budding horror fans.

Laferriere, M. (2013). [Review of the book Doll bones, by H. Black]. School Library Journal, 59(6), 112. Retrieved from

Posted in ELA Instruction, Elementary Fiction, Module 1

Module 1: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Title of Book: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Author: Barbara Robinson

ISBN: 978-0064402750

Publisher: HarperCollins



It is time for the annual Christmas pageant, and everyone expects for it to be the same hum-drum production it is every year. Except this year, it isn’t. The Herdmans are the worst kids in the history of the world, and when a young Peter makes the mistake of telling them that they get snacks at church, the unruly bunch of kids show up the next Sunday. It just so happens that they are organizing the pageant at church on this particular Sunday, and the Herdmans decide that they want to participate. Imogene, Ralph, and the rest are not shy about bullying their way into the spotlight. Of course, the town is appalled. The Herdmans are the most ungodly bunch around, and now Imogene is playing Mary in the pageant! Chaos ensues, and this the participants try their hardest to make the best out the turn of events. However, it soon becomes evident that the Herdmans might not ruin the pageant after all. Each of them seems to be taking their roles seriously, and are somehow growing into not so bad children. The night of the performance ends in success, and even Imogene sheds a tear as Mary presents the baby Jesus to the crowd. What could have been a disaster becomes the best Christmas pageant in town history.

Robinson, B., & Brown, J. G. (1972). The best Christmas pageant ever. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

My Impressions:

I loved this quirky Christmas story. The characters were cleverly written, and though it is pretty easy to predict the course of the plot, the humor makes it remain enjoyable. The Herdmans were such dynamic characters. It is these kids alone that keep the reader turning page after page, just to see what those crazy kids are going to do next. Likewise, I enjoyed watching all of the characters grow over the course of the book. Every person in the story seemed to have learned something about themselves that they did not know before. The plot did get somewhat bogged down in pageant scenes, and I think that a reader who is not interested in the bible story itself might become a little bored trying to wade through all of the nativity scene descriptions. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was clever and funny, and held my interest with its diverse set of characters. I would recommend this book as a classroom read aloud for grades 3-5, or to any reader who is looking for a great Christmas story.

For Use in the Library:

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever would be a great book to use to teach a characterization unit. Give a group of kids a list of character traits and descriptive adjectives, and I think they will have a lot of fun describing all of the characters. they could analyze the interactions and motivations of each of the characters in the story, and practice drawing conclusions based on evidence. This story could also be turned into a Reader’s Theater activity, where the teacher librarian chooses a scene from the book, and assigns roles for the students to act out as they read.



School Library Journal

Gr 3-6-This beloved classic by Barbara Robinson (HarpCollins, 1972) about six very unruly children who teach a whole church about the true meaning of the birth of Christ is brought to life by the narrator, C. J. Critt. By using only her voice, she gives each character its own personality. With slight voice inflections and gentle changes in the pacing of the narration, she gives listeners a real understanding of the story. While the pacing of the narration is at times a little fast during the body of the text, the pauses at commas, periods and between paragraphs are longer than normally heard in general conversation. While this doesn’t distract from the pleasure of just listening to the story, it will cause some problems if used as a read-a-long with older students. Due to the subject matter, public school libraries will find its uses limited. Since the book and the TV movie are so popular, public libraries will find a built in audience.ÄAnn West LaPrise, Detroit Public Library, MI (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
LaPrise, A. W. (2010). [Review of the book The best Christmas pageant ever, by B. Anderson]. School Library Journal. Retrieved From: