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