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Julius Lester’s 1995 Boston Globe-Horn Book Picture Book Author Award Speech for John Henry

It was late on an afternoon in late summer or early autumn of 1967. My editor at Dial Books, Joyce Johnson, and I had just finished going over the final revisions for my first book, Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!, which would be published the following spring.

As I was getting ready to leave, Joyce said, “You have a very simple writing style. Have you ever thought about writing children’s books?” I hadn’t and told her so. “Would you be interested in meeting our children’s book editor? She read the manuscript and would like to meet you.” I shrugged. “Sure.”

She took me into a small office and introduced me to Phyllis Fogelman. Phyllis repeated Joyce’s comment about my writing style and wondered if I had any ideas that might be suitable for a children’s book. I thought for a moment. Three years before, I had done research in slave narratives because I was intrigued by the idea of telling the story of slavery in the words of those who had suffered it. I mentioned this to Phyllis. She asked me to write a one-page description and let her see it. I went home and did so. Thus a book called To Be a Slave (Dial) came into being.

A few months after To Be a Slave was published, I got a call from my agent. “Congratulations,” he began. “For what?” I wanted to know. “To Be a Slave has just been named a Newbery Honor Book.” “What’s that?” I responded. He was a little nonplussed at my ignorance and tried to explain. “Any money?” I asked. “No,” was the response. “Oh,” I responded, and hung up.

Well, it is 1995, and when Phyllis called to say that John Henry (Dial) was a recipient of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, not only did I know what it was, I got excited even before she mentioned that I got money for it, too.

I am still not sure what it was that made Phyllis Fogelman see a children’s book writer in an angry manuscript about race in America, but without her prescience my career as a writer would be radically different and much poorer. Words need to be presented in a way that is attractive and appealing and invites people into the worlds and emotions evoked by those words. I am grateful to Phyllis and everyone at Dial for the care they have taken with my words for almost three decades.

A couple of summers ago Phyllis called with an idea: Jerry Pinkney wanted to do a book about John Henry. Would I be interested in writing it? I knew the legend well from my days as a folksinger, but I had never been especially drawn to him. But if Jerry saw a possibility there, perhaps I would talk to him and get a feel for what he had in mind.

As Jerry and I talked, I realized that I was hesitating because I wasn’t sure to how tell a story for young readers in which the hero dies. Then Jerry said something that brought the image of Martin Luther King, Jr., to mind, and I knew how to handle John Henry’s death.

Writing John Henry was the first time I worked from an idea of the artist. It was a difficult book to write, because I wanted to find the words and make real something that was very important to Jerry. I also had to learn to think like an artist – in particular, Jerry Pinkney – in addition to how I thought as a writer.

The final product was beyond anything I could have imagined. Although I am proud of the words of this book, I am more proud that those words are inextricably joined to Jerry Pinkney’s magical art. At its best a picture book should so join word and image that the two make a whole and become more than either could be alone.

I want to thank the judges for the recognition this award extends to John Henry. I also want to congratulate Paul O. Zelinsky and Anne Isaacs for their fine work in Swamp Angel (Dutton; recipient of a 1995 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award for picture book) and on the recognition it continues to receive.

I want to thank the University of Massachusetts, where I have taught for the past twenty-four years, for the respect and support it has given me and my creativity. I also want to acknowledge my wife, Milan Sabatini, who is my first reader and first editor. The joy her presence in my life brings me is reflected on every page I write.

I would like to close with a word about the figure of John Henry. We live in a society that talks about the need for children to have role models, as if life is a sitcom, and if we only know our proper roles, we will be able to laugh ourselves into happily ever after. But life is not a sitcom, and our lives are not roles.

What children need are not role models but heroes and heroines. A hero is one who is larger than life. Because he or she is superhuman, we are inspired to expand the boundaries of what we had thought was possible. We are inspired to attempt the impossible, and in the attempt, we become more wholly human.

That is the lesson of John Henry. He swings his hammers and the power of his motion crates a rainbow, and when those hammers strike steel, the ringing sound is an affirmation of the transcendent in the human spirit.

John Henry walked out of the tunnel into the sunlight, raised his arms over his head, a hammer in each hand. The rainbow slid off the mountain and around his shoulders.

With a smile John Henry’s eyes closed, and slowly he fell to the ground. John Henry was dead. He had hammered so hard and so fast and so long that his big heart had burst.

Everyone was silent for a minute. Then came the sound of soft crying. Some said it came from the moon. Another one said she saw the sun shed a tear.

Then something strange happened. Afterward folks swore the rainbow whispered it. I don’t know. But whether it was a whisper or a thought, everyone had the same knowing at the same moment: “Dying ain’t important. Everybody does that. What matters is how well you do your living.”

First one person started clapping. Then another, and another. Soon everybody was clapping.

The next morning the sun got everybody up early to say goodbye to John Henry. They put him on a flatbed railroad car, and the train made its way slowly out of the mountains. All along the way folks lined both sides of the track, and they were cheering and shouting through their tears:

“John Henry! John Henry!”

John Henry’s body was taken to Washington, D.C.

Some say he as buried on the White House lawn late one night while the President and the Mrs. President was asleep.

I don’t know about none of that. What I do know is this: If you walk by the White House late at night, stand real still, and listen closely, folks say you just might hear a deep voice singing:

“I got a rainbow

RINGGGG! RINGGGG!

Tied round my shoulder

RINGGGG! RINGGGG!

It ain’t gon’ rain,

No, it ain’t got’ rain.

RINGGGG! RINGGGG!

To present children with role models is to betray the human spirit. Both John Henry and Swamp Angel want to awaken in children the dreaming self that will lead them toward adventures of the spirit more daunting, more exhilarating, and more exciting even than hammering a tunnel through a mountain or defeating a bear whose pelt is as wide as the prairie.

The task of the hero and heroine belongs to us all. That task is to live with such exuberance that what it is to be human will be expanded until the asphyxiating concepts of race and gender will be rendered meaningless, and then we will be able to see the rainbow around the shoulders of each and everyone one of us, the rainbow that has been there all the while.

Julius Lester is the winner of the 1995 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for picture book for John Henry (Dial). His speech was delivered at the annual meeting of the New England Library Association in Providence, Rhode Island, on October 2, 1995.

From the January/February 1996 Horn Book Magazine.

Julius Lester About Julius Lester

Julius Lester (1939-2018) is the author To Be a Slave (illustrated by Tom Feelings), a Newbery Honor winner; Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History; When the Beginning Began: Stories About God, the Creatures, and Us (illustrated by Emily Lisker); and Coretta Scott King Author Award winner Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue, among many others. His frequent collaborations with Jerry Pinkney included their iconic John Henry (winner of a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award); The Old African; Sam and the Tigers; and collections of Uncle Remus tales.

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