Henry Climbs a Mountain

Henry Climbs a Mountain, by D.B. Johnson

henry climbs mountain coverThis is a story of Henry David Thoreau and of slavery.  It is a story of hope and freedom.  In this picture book, D.B. Johnson portrays Henry David Thoreau (and other characters) as a bear.

On a trip to town to get a shoe that was being repaired, Henry is stopped by the tax collector and jailed for not paying his taxes.


“Pay a state that lets farmers own slaves?  Never!” said Henry.

Henry stares at the walls and ceiling of the jail cell, then begins to draw a different world.  He draws his shoe, a flower, and a hummingbird….then a tree, a path, and a river.  Henry steps into the picture, getting his feet wet in the river, and continues drawing his way up a mountain.  As Henry climbs and draws, he sings: “The bear goes over the mountain…..to see what he can see.”

When Henry reaches the top of the mountain, he meets a traveler coming up the other side.  This bear is singing:  “The other side of the mountain…will set me free at last.”  This bear is wearing patched clothing, and a metal band (he has escaped) on one leg.

Henry and the other bear talk and sing on top of the mountain.  When Henry learns that the other bear has a long way to walk (“As far as the star in the North”) and has no shoes, Henry gives the other bear his own shoes.

The bear heads off to the North.  Henry heads back down the mountain without his shoes.

This is a good book for introducing the concepts of slavery and the underground railroad.  When I read this with my young children, they noticed the escaped bear’s metal band and asked many questions about slavery.  This can be a starting point for discussions with older children as well – about slavery, ethics, civil disobedience, and perhaps even about the ways groups of people influence government.

There is a page of biographical information about Thoreau at the end of this picture book.

Thoreau is known for his time spent in the woods near Concord, MA – and his book, Walden.  Thoreau also wrote Civil Disobedience – and his ideas influenced people all over the world including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.  Thoreau went to jail for not paying his taxes – in protest to a government that let people own slaves.  Thoreau was an abolitionist and helped slaves escape to freedom.  Thoreau died in May 1862.  Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863.


Unspoken, A Story from the Underground Railroad, by Henry Cole

unspoken coverIn this powerful, wordless picture book, Cole tells the story of a young farm girl in the South around the time of the Civil War.

The girl goes about her daily chores around the farm.  While collecting vegetables from a storage area, the girl hears something and sees an eye looking at her through a bundle of corn stalks in a corner.  The girl is frightened, and runs.

But, you can see she is thinking about what she saw, and what it means.  The girl worries through dinner.  Then, she makes up her mind and takes some food out to the storage building, glancing around to make sure nobody is watching.  The girl sets the food, on a checkered cloth, in front of the bundle of corn stalks, and smiles.  She has made her choice.  She will hide and feed the runaway slave.  The adults around her do not know what she is doing.

The girl brings food several more times, always in a checkered cloth.  One day, bounty hunters come to the farm with a poster.  The words, “WANTED, ESCAPED, and REWARD” stand out on the poster (these are the only words in the book).  The girl looks on, hidden, as the men talk with her family.  The hidden runaway slave sees the bounty hunters, too.

Later, when the girl brings food, she finds that the bundle of corn stalks is empty.  The person she helped has moved on….but left her a gift – a corn husk doll wearing a dress made of checkered cloth.

In a two-page author’s note at the end of the book, Cole tells of his family, where he grew up in Virginia, and of connections to the Civil War.  He also gives a brief description of the underground railroad and of following the North Star to freedom.  Cole states:

“But I didn’t want this story to tell of battles…I wanted to tell – or show – the courage of everyday people who were brave in quiet ways.”

This is a good way to introduce children to the concepts of slavery, and the underground railroad – and to the brave and compassionate people who helped those following the North Star to freedom.