"Today the greatest challenge in publishing is distribution and discoverability. As a result, sites like [PictureBooksReview] are more important than ever to discerning readers, new authors and independent publishers."
-Steve Floyd, chief executive officer of August House books

"The interview is so amazing! I appreciate you picking up on all these aspects of what I've been doing. It's always great to talk with someone who understands what goes into these things."

- Jose Lucio, self-published author of Heave Ho!


John Henry (1994)

Retold by Julius Lester

Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

Pencil, colored pencils and watercolor

Typography by Jane Byers Bierhorst

Dial Books

Another gorgeous book by Pinkney and written by the great Julius Lester, who took great pains to find a new way of telling this story. He writes in his introduction that he found a great resonance between the characters of John Henry and Martin Luther King, Jr. He's uncertain as to what the connection is, precisely, but doing this book helped him explore the issue.

Lester went through several old stories and songs and lifted ideas and stanzas to fill in the details of John Henry's life. We begin with a birth sequence reminiscent of another famous birth in a stable in Bethlehem. In fact, the very first image is that of a shooting star.

Pinkney is an obvious lover of animals, and he fills the opening sequence with moose, bears, birds, mountain critters and forest dwellers of all size and shape and variety - even a unicorn I just now noticed - who have come to the home of the Henry family as they welcome into the world their uncommonly strong baby boy, lifting his cradle above his head.

"You have probably never heard of John Henry. Or maybe you heard about him but don't know the ins and out of his comings and goings. Well, that's why I'm going to tell you about him."

John Henry as a child
John Henry as a child.
John Henry grows into an adolescent almost instantaneously, and is seen the very next day out chopping trees and piling up lumber. He "helped his papa rebuild the porch he had busted through, added a wing onto the house with an indoor swimming pool and one of them jacutzis (sic). After lunch he chopped down an acre of trees and split them into fireplace logs and still had time for a nap before supper."

The day after that, John challenges Ferret-Faced Freddy to a race: Freddy on horseback, John on foot. I'm sure you can guess who the winner is.

Its as though John doesn't know what to do with his strength, and becomes a trickster of a kind. It's not until he meets the road crew that he finds his calling. With his two twenty-pound sledgehammers with four-foot handles made of whale bone, he breaks through a boulder which remained untouched after a dynamite explosion. As he swings his mighty hammers, he sings out:

I got a rainbow
Tied round my shoulder
It ain't gon' rain,
No, it ain't gon' rain.

John Henry stell driving man
"Let's have a contest!"
There seem to be a thousand variations to the John Henry legend, in terms of these early adventures. However, the climax is always the same. The steam drill.

"It can hammer faster and harder than ten men and it never has to stop and rest!"

"Let's have a contest. Your steam drill against me and my hammers."

Pinkney shows John towering over the boss man, his hammer slung across his shoulders. All the other workers look on in intense curiosity and admiration. What wonderful detail Pinkney has paid to their clothing: The boss man's derby and checkered pants, John's red kerchief and black vest. He clearly spent a great deal of time considering their clothing options of the day, and everything about it comes across as absolutely authentic.

The next day, the contest begins. The narrative relies more on the illustrations here than the text. All day and all night, the steam drill and John Henry attempt to finish first. Finally, the contest is over. "The boss of the steam drill was flabbergasted. John Henry had come a mile and a quarter. The steam drill had only come a quarter."

The victory is short-lived, however, as anyone who has ever heard the song will know. John Henry had hammered so hard and so fast and so long that his big heart had burst.

"Some say he was buried on the White House lawn late one night while the President and the Mrs. President was asleep."

More picture books based on American Folktales!

Shooting star above the White House
An omen above the White House.

Woody Guthrie sings the ballad of John Henry, recorded in 1944.

Julius Lester (1939 - )

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...