Award-Winning Books Picture Book Challenge 2011 Picture Books PoC Reading Challenge 2011

The Man with the Strength of a Steam-Powered Hammer: “John Henry” by Julius Lester with Pictures by Jerry Pinkney

PoC Status Update: 1/9 read

PictureBook Challenge Update: 4 out of 72

Myra here.

I knew that this book was special the minute I saw it in the library. I’ve read (and reviewed) a book that has been illustrated by Jerry Pinkney previously (entitled God Bless the Child with Arthur Herzog Jr. for our Picture Books that Sing theme) and I was smitten by his beautiful art work. This Caldecott Honor book (also an ALA Notable Book for Children, Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner and a Parents magazine Best Book to cite just a few), John Henry, has solidified my contention that Jerry Pinkney is a genius.

Admittedly, I have not heard of John Henry until I borrowed this picture book, but the historical notes at the beginning of the narrative alongside the magical retelling of Julius Lester has made me research about this mythical hero, boulder of a man, with hammer for hands.

Like most legends, folk tales, heroic myths, it is not clear whether a real-life John Henry actually existed. With the constant retelling of tale after tale after tale, John Henry’s story has reached epic proportions and has consistently served as an inspiration for working-class people and a celebration of the human spirit – as seen through folk songs, paintings, books, monuments, and video clips that have been created in honor of this giant being.

The Birth of John Henry with Animals All Around

Who is John Henry? This was how Julius Lester described this mythical figure and how special he is from the moment of his birth.

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

When John Henry was born, birds came from everywhere to see him. The bears and panthers and moose and deer and rabbits and squirrels and even a unicorn came out of the woods to see him. And instead of the sun tending to his business and going to bed, it was peeping out from behind the moon’s skirts trying to get a glimpse of the new baby.

Now, I don’t know this man – but any one being who can make this happen at the moment of his birth (or at least inspires such reverie) is surely someone I would like to get to know better – regardless of whether he’s been dead for a century.

He grew and he grew and he grew. He grew until his head and shoulders busted through the roof which was over the porch. John Henry thought that was the funniest thing in the world. He laughed so loud, the sun got scared. It scurried from behind the moon’s skirts and went to bed, which is where it should’ve been all the while.

The poetry in the way that John Henry’s life story was written by Lester and the moving images/ paintings created by the genius hands of Pinkney evoke such texture and depth and authenticity – it unites human beings regardless of one’s color/race. The surreal quality of a baby becoming a full-grown man overnight, commanding the sun to shine and chopping down an acre of trees the day after he was born – appeal to that sense of the mythic, the heroic, and the totally impossible, it just had to be real.

Conquering Evil and Working with One’s Hands. John Henry’s first challenge was

John Henry with Ferret Faced Freddy whose voice “sounded like bat wings on tombstones.”

Ferret-Faced Freddy known to be the meanest man in the state. John Henry sought to change this man through a bet he could not refuse:

Let’s have a race. You on your horse. Me on my legs. If you and your horse win, you can work me as hard as you want for a whole year. If I win, you have to be nice for a year.

This race was meant to show John Henry’s speed (“the wind was out of breath trying to keep up with him”), agility, and the capacity of good to triumph over evil.

With “two twenty-pound sledgehammers with four foot handles made of whale bone” given to him by his father, John Henry continued to go out into the world to make something of himself.

John Henry and his Hammer

Armed with these tools, his powerful hands, and the clothes on his back (and a rainbow on his shoulder), he managed to destroy a boulder that was “as hard as anger and so big around, it took half a week for a tall man to walk from one side to the other.” He was able to do what a dynamite couldn’t.

The hammer hit the boulder. That boulder shivered like you do on a cold winter morning when it looks like the school bus is never going to come.


The boulder shivered like the morning when freedom came to the slaves.

John Henry’s strength does not come from one man – but from the collective power of a people with a rich and dynamic heritage and the fortitude that could move mountains, the boundless faith that can pulverize rocks, stones and a veritable mountain and turn it into paved road overnight.

The Big Bend Tunnel and the Steam Drill Challenge. Legend has it that between

The Man with the Rainbow Wrapped Around his Shoulders

1870-1873, the Big Bend Tunnel was being built on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in West Virginia, now believed to be the home of this giant of a man. While historians point to possible accounts of an ex-slave named John Henry among the African American people who worked on the tunnel, the evidence pointing to an actual encounter that pits machine (a steam drill) against Man (John Henry) remains inconclusive.

Julius Lester shares this challenge between man and machine through the eyes of the rising sun who was surprised that the birds weren’t singing and the roosters ceased crowing the day that the competition was about to take place.

When the sun didn’t hear the rooster, he wondered if something was wrong. So he rose a couple of minutes early to see.

Always with a Hammer in Hand

What he saw was a mountain as big as hurt feelings. On one side was a big machine hooked up to hoses. It was belching smoke and steam. As the machine attacked the mountain, rocks and dirt and underbrush flew into the air. On the other side was John Henry. Next to the mountain he didn’t look much bigger than a wish that wasn’t going to come true.

A monument in honor of John Henry. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

So did Man triumph over Machine? That I would leave for you to discover. One thing is for certain: this man has lived through decades through folk songs, word of mouth, and quiet stories told in a circle by the fire – whispered through the ages, hollered across train tunnels, declared in public speeches that move millions of people.

The Original Great Bend Tunnel – click on the image to be taken to the websource

Plaque that provides rich details about the Big Bend Tunnel – click on the image to be taken to the websource

There is another website that details the historical narrative behind the mythical hero, John Henry, entitled: The Legend of John Henry and the Coming of the Railroad to the New River Gorge. Click here to be taken to the website.

Julius Lester, the Writer of the book used to be a photographer for the civil rights movement during the 60s. He has published more than 30 books and used to be a member of the faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where he used to be a Professor of Judaic and Near Eastern studies and adjunct professor of History. Click here to be taken to his blog.

Jerry Pinkney has been illustrating books for children since the 1960s and has been the recipient of five Caldecott Honor medals and a Caldecott medal in 2010. His being a prolific artist is evident in his publishing over a hundred books, five of which have received Coretta Scott King Awards and four have received a Coretta Scott King Honor Award. If you wish to know more about him and his work, click here to be taken to his website.

To end this long post, here are two video clips about John Henry. The first one is a real treat to all you blues lovers out there. A rendition of the folk song John Henry by Fred McDowell:

This last video clip is taken from Disney’s short animation on John Henry which was shown on 2000. Enjoy!

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

9 comments on “The Man with the Strength of a Steam-Powered Hammer: “John Henry” by Julius Lester with Pictures by Jerry Pinkney

  1. Julius Lester

    I really enjoyed all your research and your commentary on both what I wrote and Jerry’s illustrations.

    I really enjoyed the research you did as well as your commentary on the story as I wrote it and on Jerry’s illustrations. Your research and the links you provided enrich a reader’s experience of the book. Thank you.


    • myragarcesbacsal

      It truly is an honor to have you visit our website. It is such affirmation to know that you enjoyed reading through the review. The poetry and the surreal quality of how you have characterized this boulder of a being (John Henry) has moved me immeasurably.


  2. Congratulations on the comment from Julius Lester himself!:) Admittedly, I wasn’t familiar with the legend of John Henry. Though, while I was reading your review, couldn’t help compare the legend with another Filipino legendary character called Bernardo Carpio. There are several versions of the tale, but the most popular one with our high school students is the one describing Bernardo Carpio as child who grew up to be a giant. He was later trapped between two mountains, and when he tries to free himself from his prison, he causes earthquakes.


    • myragarcesbacsal

      Hi Honey! Yes, that’s true. In fact, I felt the need to read Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story. It has been languishing in my daughter’s book shelf – I should get around to reading that. I understand that the legend of Bernardo Carpio has been mentioned there as well. It would be great to feature that book here and enter it for the PoC Reading Challenge.

      BTW, we’d be hosting our own Reading Challenge soon. We are hoping that we could entice more book bloggers to join. This time around, we have book prizes to offer as incentive. Yipee! =)


      • Great! Looking forward to your announcement. And will help spread the word.:)

        Oh, what’s the challenge about, by the way? Just so I can get more excited.:)


      • myragarcesbacsal

        Hi Honey, it’s related to spine-tingling suspense, mystery and such – it’d run for six months. We’d have six book prizes! =) 3 for adults and 3 for YA fiction/children’s lit themed. =)


  3. Hi! I like your blog and your books! I especially like this one…
    I prefer to read stories like this.
    Very inspiring and heart-warming.
    I will add you to my blogroll, if you don’t mind:-)
    Happy Reading!


    • myragarcesbacsal

      Hello! Thank you for visiting our website. I’m glad that you liked the book. It is truly a special story. The poetry is matched by such lovely illustrations. Thanks for adding us as well to your blogroll. Hopefully you can also join in on our Reading Challenge, we’d be posting it tomorrow. =)


  4. Pingback: [Monday Reading] Doña Flor and Abuelita |

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