Lester, Julius. 1994. John Henry. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. New York, NY: Dial Books. ISBN 0-590-53936-1
The story of John Henry, the legendary man who ran faster than a horse and was stronger than dynamite. Based on folksongs and lore passed down through the ages into the American culture, the author tells of John Henry’s birth, his many great accomplishments – including beating a steam drill through a mountain, and finally to his supposed burial on the White House grounds.
This well written and illustrated story is set in the Appalachian, namely the Allegheny, Mountains of West Virginia. As stated in the preface, the truth behind the legend is hard to find. There probably was an ex-slave on whom the stories are based but no one knows for sure because as the book states, “My great-grandaddy’s brother’s cousin’s sister-in-law’s uncle’s aunt was there that morning” to witness the incredible feats of John Henry. So the author relies on the legends and songs to tell the story of hard working crews who came up against insurmountable odds which John Henry gets them through. The author captures the descriptive language of the area and people through phrases like, “it was hard as anger” and “Next to the mountain, he didn’t look much bigger than a wish that wasn’t going to come true.” The author also uses names like mama, papa, and granddaddy and calls a carbonated beverage a “soda mom”.
Staying true to the culture’s use of nature in its stories, the author includes animals of the region and personifies the sun and moon to provide the emotions of the story. The illustrator captures these personifications as well as the spirit of the people well. He includes wood buildings that are reflective of the setting and shows the people as one might imagine they would look – muscular for the hard-working farmers and railroad men and thin as most people of this time and region were poor. The illustrations are also quite telling as there is a mixture of black and white characters in the illustrations and yet the ‘boss’ is always a white man. Ultimately, this is the celebration of a man who may or may not have really lived but embodied the spirit of a people who were decent, hard-working folk deserving recognition but often having to go without. John Henry overcame the hardships and even made it to the White House.
From Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews, 1994)
Onto the page bounds the colossus John Henry, man of legend, man of myth (though the preface keeps things off balance on that point). John was the archetype for the "Just Do It" generation; he was all bustle and business, surrounded by an aura of triumph. Lester hits upon all of John's special moments: his stupendous growth spurt; his humbling of Ferret-Faced Freddy; his smashing the great stone so fast that he creates a natty rainbow around his shoulders; and, of course, the climactic duel with the steam drill deep in the hills of West Virginia. John smoked the drill, but his big heart burst in the process. Lester (The Last Tales of Uncle Remus, p. 70, etc.; The Man Who Knew Too Much, see below) wisely makes it clear that you don't have to be John Henry to get things done: You just need the will; there's a bit of John to be tapped in us all. Pinkney's watercolors walk a smart and lovely line between ephemerality and sheer natural energy. The rainbow whispers the lesson here: "Dying ain't important. Everybody does that. What matters is how well you do your living." Amen. 1994, Dial, $16.99; PLB $16.89. © 1994 Kirkus Reviews/VNU eMedia, Inc. All rights reserved.
From Hazel Rochman (Booklist, June 1994 (Vol. 90, No. 19 & 20))
Based on the popular black folk ballad about the contest between John Henry and the steam drill, this picture-book version is a tall tale and a heroic myth, a celebration of the human spirit. Like Lester's great collections of the Uncle Remus tales, also illustrated by Pinkney, the story is told with rhythm and wit, humor and exaggeration, and with a heart-catching immediacy that connects the human and the natural world. ("This was no ordinary boulder. It was as hard as anger . . . a mountain as big as hurt feelings"). The dramatic climax of the story is set at the time of the building of the railroad through the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia, but Lester begins with the hero's birth, when all the birds and animals come to see the baby and the sun is so excited it forgets to go to bed. Pinkney's dappled pencil-and-watercolor illustrations capture the individuality of the great working man, who is part of the human community and who has the strength of rock and wind. John Henry swings his hammer so fast, he makes a rainbow around his shoulders, and the pictures show that light everywhere, "shining and shimmering in the dust and grit like hope that never dies." Category: For the Young. 1994, Dial, $16.99 and $16.89. Ages 4 and up. Starred Review.
This book could be used in a study of Tall Tales. It could also be used in a lesson on figurative language with its many phrases like “a mountain as big as hurt feelings.” The book also contains great vocabulary such as flabbergasted, pulverized, and commotion. The line "Dying ain't important. Everybody does that. What matters is how well you do your living," would also make an excellent subject for a reader’s response journal.