Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Julius Lester/Jerry Pinkney Tale

Title: John Henry
Author: Julius Lester
Illustrator: Jerry Pinkney
Year Published: 1994
Publisher: Dial Books
Awards: Boston Globe-Horn Book Award (1995), ALA Notable Book (1995), Caldecott Honor (1995)

What did you like/dislike about the book?
Julius Lester's book, John Henry, is a folktale about a gargantuan man named John Henry.  He has a reputation as being the strongest and fastest at everything he attempts.  John helps with the early construction of America's roads and ends up becoming one of its favorite sons.  

My favorite detail of the book is the conversational language in which it was told.  An African-American dialect is used, which provides authenticity to the story as a generational folktale.  Phrases such as "Don't make me no never mind" allow the reader to imagine John Henry and his time.  I also enjoy the illustrations in this book because they are so realistic.  I can almost feel the texture of John's shirt or the rough edges of the boulder.

I do not like the abrupt nature that John's death is dealt with in this book.  The author does a great job of building the character up that when he dies, it deflates the reader.  

This book is appropriate in any classroom setting.  I can imagine it being tied in with the study of American history, African-American history, and folktales.

What in your life would have influenced this reaction/response?
I chose this book because my grandmother loves to say "Whoa, John Henry" when one of us gets ahead of ourselves.  I never understood why she said that, so when I saw this title, I knew I had to do my research.  She likely says this because of John Henry's speed and strength.  

Reading about John Henry reinforces my love of early American history.  I enjoy learning about past folk heroes and how our country came to into being.  

How does this book compare to similar books/author’s other books?
Similar books involving early American folk heroes are also able to blend character with plot.  In researching the author and illustrator, I find they are well-known in African-American book circles and enjoy working together.  Both like to retell African-American folktales and have won various awards for their work.

What did I learn about children’s literature from this book?
This book blends an authentic story with exceptional illustrations.  It reminds us all that one does not have to sacrifice meaning for beauty in children's literature.

Other titles by these authors include:
Day of Tears
The Lion and the Mouse (2010 Caldecott Winner)
Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (with Rudyard Kipling)

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