John Henry

written by Julius Lester
illustrated by Jerry Pinkney


Julius Lester's John Henry
illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 5-12


Man vs. Machine story, and more

This is an absolutely stunning book. Jerry Pinkney won a 1995 Caldecott Honor for his wonderful illustrations, yet to my mind they pale in comparison to author Julius Lester's breathtaking use of imagery and simile in his thoroughly unique take on the legend of John Henry.

Here's a small sampling of Mr. Lester's profound use of simile:

  • "a voice like bat wings on tombstones"
  • a boulder "as hard as anger"
  • "a mountain as big as hurt feelings"
  • "muscles as hard as wisdom"

I confess, I googled these phrases just to make sure there were original to Mr. Lester (and not taken from the many ballads of John Henry). They're Mr. Lester's, through and through.

Of course, both Lester and Pinkney take inspiration from the ballads and legends of John Henry (who may or may not have been an actual person).

For those who don't know the legend...

John Henry was said to be a giant of a man, African-American, who worked on a railroad crew in the mid-1800s, clearing the path for track to be laid. A powerhouse with his twin 20 lb. hammers, he is said to have taken on a newfangled steam-powered drill in a contest - the steam drill intended to do the work of ten men...

As well as replace them.

John Henry is said to have won the contest...and to have killed himself in so doing. This made him a working class hero - and a victim - all at the same time.

The book focuses entirely on the positive - indeed, magical - aspects of the legend. John Henry is described as a man so big and strong that the sun is scared of him. Yet he's truly a gentle giant.

Author Lester says in a note to the reader that he sees Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the character of John Henry, though he admits he has trouble putting words to how and why.

John Henry as a baby

This reviewer sees other things, and they prevent me from giving an unqualified recommendation to the book, as spectacular as it is.

(It may just be me, though. I'll leave it to you to decide.)

My reservation is due to the celebration of the purely physical traits of John Henry. I hear too many echoes of a glorification of athleticism, and see in John Henry the player who took one too many cortisone shots - or concussions - for the team, while accruing no real benefit to himself.

So I would have preferred a more balanced treatment of the legend. Not one that lessened the character, but one that portrayed him as victim as well as hero. Instead, in this John Henry we get the version of the legend in which the big man is celebrated even after his death, his body taken by train - in front of cheering throngs - to Washington, D.C., perhaps even to be buried beneath the White House lawn...

Something that surely did not happen.

I've never been a big fan of rewards promised after death. They're an easy thing to promise.

All that said, this remains a spectacularly written and illustrated book. So decide for yourself whether the story of John Henry is one you want to celebrate in your home.

More Caldecott honorees.

More black children's books.

More of Steve's reviews.

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