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Transformers: The Power of Storytelling

lester_john henryI grew up in a small brick row house on a dead-end street in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In many ways, my neighborhood block in the 1940s was representative of African American culture as a whole: there were too many things we were told we could not do, too many places we might not be welcome, and too many opportunities out of our reach — one could never become an artist!

However, my parents acted as a counterbalance to those negative shadows society cast over our lives and our futures. With grit, ingenuity, and pride, they provided not only the essentials — 
a roof over our heads, food, clothes, 
and an education — but also that all-important feeling of being loved and safe. One of the ways this sense of nurturing was expressed was through storytelling. My parents believed it was important to give us a window into both our roots and the outside world. This way, we could learn to write our own narratives for our lives.

Among the small collection of books in our home was the Bible, an edition of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays (which my mother was often found reading), and some of the classics of children’s literature, including works by Hans Christian Andersen, Aesop’s Fables, and Grimms’ Fairy Tales. However, only one book was illustrated with a central character of color: Little Black Sambo.

Where one did find more diverse 
characters was in the oral tradition of 
storytelling. Our neighbors and extended family provided a rich sense of community and most of our social life, and sharing stories was our chief pastime. How vivid the narratives became when spoken aloud, with one’s whole body expressing the mood! These stories were acted out in living rooms and backyards, on front stoops and in barbershops. And with each telling, as listeners sat riveted, hardships seemed to fade, and the good life felt more attainable.

For me, the stories transformed my everyday life. They sparked my curiosity and provided an escape from a crowded environment. Since I loved to draw, I began to explore my own visual storytelling, sketching a world of make-believe and creating my own space. I gravitated toward stories that had outcomes of triumph, and the legend of John Henry was at the top of my list. His can-do attitude served as a catalyst for me to break through limitations and find possibility.

I did overcome societal obstacles, and I did become an artist. And one day, after I had been illustrating children’s books for over twenty-five years, my agent, Sheldon Fogelman, asked me if there was a story from my youth that I’d always wanted to illustrate. Quicker than a heartbeat, the legend of John Henry came to mind.

The John Henry I remembered was described in the voices of people I loved, but as I began researching text in the public domain to adapt, I found a different John Henry — one described in derogatory and offensive terms. I turned to Julius Lester, with whom I had collaborated on The Tales of Uncle Remus, and asked if he would write a new adaptation.

At first Julius was curious, asking what I saw in John Henry. But, as he would later write in the introduction, when I spoke about “the transcendent quality of John Henry’s humanity…the image of Martin Luther King Jr. came to [him].” Together, we worked to articulate the John Henry legend of my boyhood, bringing a sense of perseverance, determination, and hope to the narrative.

Our John Henry was published in 1994. It has since been translated into simplified Chinese. As I imagine young people hearing the story of John Henry in China, the way that I once did in Philadelphia, my hope is that something I created can help pass on that same feeling of hope and possibility.

From the May/June 2015 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Transformations.

Jerry Pinkney About Jerry Pinkney

Jerry Pinkney is the winner of the 2016 Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2016 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal.

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