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A Natural Man: The True Story of John Henry Paperback – September 16, 2014

4.7 out of 5 stars 72 ratings

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Editorial Reviews


Mr. Sanfield also has a literary man's eye and has filled in the story in places where balladry drops transitions and folk tales skim over motivation. In other words, this is a standout retelling. (The New York Times Book Review)

The ballad of John Henry is as much a part of American folklore as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill; the battle of man vs. machine for which the victorious John Henry gave his life is one most school children know. Sanfield tells the legend anew, weaving familiar tidbits (that John Henry was born with his hammer in his hand) with splendid poetic images: "There was a red, copper moon that didn't give off any light"; "The Mississippi River ran upstream for a thousand miles, and John Henry was born." The fight to the death on the railroad line, a death that John Henry predicted when he was two, is grippingly told. Thornton's softly diffused black-and-white drawings capture the spirit of the tale, moody and ominous in places, full of humor in others. Music and lyrics to one version of the ballad are provided in the back of this triumphant book about a genuine hero. (Publishers Weekly)

The ballad of John Henry has been a part of American folklore for over two centuries. This book, based on the legend, tells the story of this "natural man." Weighing 33 pounds at birth, John Henry quickly matures into a giant of a man. Freed from slavery after the Civil War, he begins drifting around the country in pursuit of his life's calling. Upon witnessing a railroad track being laid, he realizes that he was born to be a "steeldriving man." After a number of tremendous feats of speed, strength, and endurance John Henry meets his tragic death upon finishing as the victor in a race against a steam drill. The book includes the author's version of the ballad (there are over 50 versions), accompanied by the traditional music. Framed conte pencil drawings are found opposite nearly every page of the narrative, adding nicely to the legend's mystique. These moving drawings stress the geometric volumes of figures and objects. Sanfield's writing has a lyrical quality, and the paradox of man versus machine is evident in the setting, as America began to face the full brunt of the industrial revolution. A worthy addition to any collection of American folklore. (Tom Hurlburt School Library Journal)

About the Author

Steve Sanfield, an award winning author, poet, and professional storyteller. He became the first full-time Storyteller-in-Residence in the United States under the sponsorship of the California Arts Council. Considered one of the country's foremost storytellers, he is equally renowned for his versions of African-American folktales. Founder and artistic director of the Sierra Storytelling Festival, he has been featured at numerous venues throughout the United States, including the National Storytelling Festival. He lives with his family near Nevada City, California.

Peter J. Thornton is a Providence, Rhode Island based artist and graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. He works in watercolor and charcoal pastels and has completed numerous award-winning illustrations for children's books, greeting cards, prints, campus maps, and more. His style is impressionistic in tone with exaggerated light sources and graphically stylized forms.

Product details

  • Lexile Measure : 790L
  • Paperback : 48 pages
  • Grade Level : 2 - 3
  • ISBN-10 : 1939160855
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1939160850
  • Item Weight : 5.6 ounces
  • Product Dimensions : 7.14 x 0.12 x 9.82 inches
  • Publisher : August House; Reissue Edition (September 16, 2014)
  • Language: : English
  • Reading level : 7 - 10 years
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.7 out of 5 stars 72 ratings
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