cover image John Henry

John Henry

Julius Lester. Dial Books, $18.99 (40pp) ISBN 978-0-8037-1606-3

A great American hero comes fully to life in this epic retelling filled with glorious, detailed watercolors. From his momentous birth, when all the animals come to see him and the sun won't go to bed, John Henry works wonders. As a child he helps his father by adding ``a wing onto the house with an indoor swimming pool and one of them jacutzis''-and that's just before lunch. Other episodes trace the growth of his generous spirit. His greatest feat is, of course, in his battle against the steam drill, as he races the machine to cut through ``a mountain as big as hurt feelings.'' He dies (``he had hammered so hard and so fast and so long that his big heart had burst''), but the onlookers understand that ``dying ain't important.... What matters is how well you do your living.'' This carefully crafted updating begs to be read aloud for its rich, rhythmic storytelling flow, and the suitably oversize illustrations amplify the text. As only one example, the animal witnesses of his birth reappear throughout, most notably to watch John Henry's funeral train pass by. This may not supplant more traditional retellings, such as Terry Small's The Legend of John Henry, but it is a triumph of collaboration from the creators of the noted Uncle Remus retellings. All ages. (Oct.)