John Henry
John Henry

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Annotation: Retells the life of the legendary African-American hero who raced against a steam drill to cut through a mountain.
Genre: Fairy tales
Catalog Number: #163323
Format: Perma-Bound Edition
All Formats: Search
Common Core/STEAM: Common Core Common Core
Publisher: Penguin
Copyright Date: 1994
Edition Date: 1999
Illustrator: Pinkney, Jerry,
Pages: 40
Availability: Available
ISBN: Publisher: 0-14-056622-8 Perma-Bound: 0-605-16603-X
ISBN 13: Publisher: 978-0-14-056622-2 Perma-Bound: 978-0-605-16603-5
Dewey: 398.21
LCCN: 93034583
Dimensions: 30 cm.
Language: English
Horn Book
The original legend of John Henry and how he beat the steam drill with his sledgehammer has been enhanced and enriched, in Lester's retelling, with wonderful contemporary details and poetic similes that add humor, beauty, and strength. Pinkney's evocative illustrations--especially the landscapes, splotchy and impressionistic, yet very solid and vigorous--are little short of magnificent. With source notes.
Kirkus Reviews
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. (Folklore/Picture book. All ages)"
School Library Journal
K-Gr 5-Another winning collaboration from the master storyteller and gifted artist of Tales of Uncle Remus (Dial, 1987) fame. Based on several well-known versions of an African American folk ballad, Lester's tale is true to the essence of the steel-driving man; yet, it allows room for touches of whimsy and even includes some contemporary references that tie the hero to our own times. Told with just a trace of dialect, the story moves along briskly toward the climax. Its moral message of the importance of a well-lived life is clearly stated, and the ending is uplifting. Pinkney's marvelous watercolors, abundantly rich in detail, convey both the superior strength and the warm sense of humanity that make John Henry perhaps a more down-to-earth character than some other tall-tale figures. The paintings' muted earth tones add a realistic touch to the text, bringing this John Henry alive. When viewed from a distance, however, figures and details sometimes blend together, making the book better suited to independent reading that group sharing. It will appeal to an older audience than Ezra Jack Keats's John Henry (Knopf, 1987) and is a fine addition to any folklore collection.-Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan, Wheeler School, Providence, RI
Starred Review ALA Booklist
*Starred Review* 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.
Word Count: 2,115
Reading Level: 4.0
Interest Level: K-3
Accelerated Reader: reading level: 4.0 / points: 0.5 / quiz: 12457 / grade: Lower Grades
Reading Counts!: reading level:4.5 / points:2.0 / quiz:Q06135
Lexile: AD620L

Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney's warm, humorous retelling of a popular African-American folk ballad.

When John Henry was born the birds, bears, rabbits, and even a unicorn came to see him. He grew so fast, he burst right through the porch roof, and laughed so loud, he scared the sun! Soon John Henry is swinging two huge sledgehammers to build roads, pulverizing boulders, and smashing rocks to smithereens. He's stronger than ten men and can dig through a mountain faster than a steam drill. Nothing can stop John Henry, and his courage stays with us forever.

A Caldecott Honor Book

* "This is a tall tale and heroic myth, a celebration of the human spirit . . . The story is told with rhythm and wit, humor and exageration, and with a heart-catching immediacy that connects the human and the natural world. " --Booklist, starred review

"Another winning collaboration from the master storyteller and gifted artist of Tales of Uncle Remus fame." --School Library Journal

"A great American hero comes fully to life in this epic retelling filled with glorious, detailed watercolors . . .  This carefully crafted updating begs to be read aloud for its rich, rhythmic storytelling flow, and the suitably oversize illustrations amplify the text." --Publishers Weekly

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