PoC Status Update: 1/9 read
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!