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African American Literature Book #1


Lester, Julius. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.  John Henry. New York; Puffin Books, 1994. ISBN: 0-8037-1606-0.



Julius Lester created a beautiful tall tale embroidered with wonderful language that entertains children of all ages.  The plot centers on the extraordinary life of John Henry.  He is born bigger, faster, and stronger then everybody else.  He raced and defeated Frett-Faced Freddy in a race against him and his horse.  He made a road tunnel through a mountain all by himself.   He even raced against a steam hammer while breaking a mountain and won. 

This excellent story is complemented by the illustrations created by Jerry Pinkney.  Done in watercolors using sepia color tones combined with some bright color, the illustrator transports the imagination to the era of the railroad building.  The characteristics given to the people are appropriate according to their actual physical characteristics.  Whites are given features that are characteristic only to whites, and Blacks are given their own set of characteristics.  For example, the boss of the railroad construction company is white, has a narrow nose, and a white peppered beard.  On the other hand, the John Henry is dark, has a wide nose, and is bigger then any other character in the story.  In addition, the illustrator does an accurate job of representing the characters.  The boss of the railroad company is presented as white, and the crew men are presented as black.  Although it was not right, that is the way things were back then.  The boss was always white.  Even the clothing used by the characters in the story is appropriate to the time in history.

Pinkney makes the story attractive to children by giving human features to the sun and the moon.  The sun has the features of a Black man and the moon resembles a Black woman.  The rainbow is another element that makes this story attractive to children.  It makes them feel that magic is a part of the life of John Henry.  Children absolutely love the presence of the animals the day John Henry was born.  

Aislynn Moreno, 9 years old, shared her comments after reading the story. 

 “My favorite part of the story is when John Henry was born because many different kinds of animals

 came to witness as John Henry grew right through the roof of his house.  It was very funny!

 I didn’t like it, though, when John Henry died because it made me sad.”

A weakness that I see in the story is that the author does not clarify an exact period of time.  From the illustrations, the reader may infer that it took place during the beginnings of the 1800s.  However, a reference to a period in time is important for children to understand  the story in relations to history.

This is a great story that can be used to introduce folktales or tall tales into a 2nd grade lesson for students of any background.  African Ameircan children will find a reflection of temsleves in a positive way, while children of other cultures will be able to relate to this extraordinary story with humor and admiration toward all the exaggerations it has.