Henry's Night by D. B. Johnson and Linda Michelin

Cindy: Earlier this spring in a blog post about Charles Darwin I said I was leery of some biographies being unsuccessfully presented in picture books and used Henry David Thoreau as an example. Wouldn’t you know I would soon read a starred review about D. B. Johnson’s latest Henry book, Henry’s Night (Houghton, 2009) featuring the bear who has adventures based on those of Thoreau as detailed in his classic work, Walden. It’s not uncommon for me to find my foot in my mouth. Feeling guilty, I immediately hunted down this new title and then hit my local public library to find the first four that I had missed. Henry Hikes to Fitchburg (2000) and Henry Builds a Cabin (2002) are my favorites of the series and both would make great read-alouds. Henry Hikes to Fitchburg will remind readers of the classic Aesop tale of the “Tortoise and the Hare” with the additional theme of Thoreau’s appreciation of nature and eschewing of material conveniences. Henry and a friend argue about the fastest way to get to Fitchburg from Concord. Walking or the train? Henry sets off walking while his friend earns money for the train by working for Concord residents (Alcott, Emerson, etc.) before he can set off. The first four titles have an end page that gives a brief biography of who Thoreau was, and reference the Walden source for the story’s content.

Walden Pond courtesy of Google Earth

Walden Pond courtesy of Google Earth

This end note is missing from the newest installment, co-authored by Linda Michelin, Johnson’s wife. Written in poetry this time, the story chronicles a sleepless night in which Henry escapes the noisy village to seek the whippoorwill bird, guided deeper into the woods by the bird, his way lighted by a jar of fireflies. More bedtime story than storyhour read aloud, this one is still magical. I’ve been convinced. In capable hands, Thoreau’s philosophy and life makes a fine subject for picture books. Saunter to your library or book store and spend some quiet time reflectling on these stories. In fact, high school students reading Walden might be motivated to produce their own picture books to illustrate a passage from this vast work.

Lynn: I have to admit that I’ve never been a huge fan of Thoreau. Oh sure, I can appreciate the whole take-time-to-appreciate-the-wonders-of-the-world-around-us thing. It’s an important message that we all need to be reminded of now and then. But really – just how practical is Thoreau’s premise? It’s pretty easy to tell that old H.D. didn’t have to get kids to soccer practice, buy groceries for a family and get home in time to deal with the laundry. Sometimes you just need to get to Fitchburg and get home again in a reasonable time, for Pete’s sake! I suspect my oozing itchy poison ivy is making me even more impatient than usual but I’d like to hear what Henry would say about being a self-appointed inspector of snow storms if he had hungry toddlers clinging to his knees. Well, nevertheless, I do admire the way these picture books distill Thoreau’s thinking and bring him to a younger audience. The cubist style illustrations are as unusual as the subject matter and enhance each other very well. I do especially enjoy the maps of Henry’s wanderings on the end pages. I agree with Cindy that one or two of these unique books would be intriguing to use with high school students and useful in elementary collections. The world would probably be a much better place if there were more Henrys and fewer harried curmudgeons like me.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

6 Comments on "Henry's Night by D. B. Johnson and Linda Michelin"

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  1. aperrigo@alleganlibrary.org' Ann says:

    Dear Bookends–
    Has Ed told you yet about the new title we read this weekend? Another subject one would think not fit for a young child’s picture book–the title is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude. Yup, that’s right–Gertrude Stein as presented to 7 and 8 year olds! We both enjoyed it immensely, and think it highly appropriate for first and second-graders. One of the focuses is that art and writing is something we do for fun! What better message could there be for young children to hear?
    Anyway, get your hands on this one. Published by Roaring Brook, I think. Ed has already snapped it up for his classroom…

  2. Gertrude is waiting for me at the public library. I put it on ILL after hearing Ed rave about it recently. Thanks for the second endorsement.–Cindy

  3. Nancy.Balz@montgomerycountymd.gov' Nancy says:

    Henry Thoreau as a bear strikes some adults who pick up the book from our public library display shelf as absurd, but once they read the stories and look at the the art, they are totally won over. Then, also, some adults aren’t familiar with Thoreau (having been educated overseas they know him as a name in American literature but have not read his writings); after reading the “bear story” to their children, they come in asking, “Is this really based on the real person? Where can I find his books?” So, I myself very much like these books in our picture book collection and think the idea of sharing them with high schoolers is brilliant (I’m already on the lookout for a h.s. teacher to clue in on this); they are a surprise between the covers. I’m glad to hear there’s another one coming (Henry’s Night).

  4. mfs306856@gmail.com' Maria says:

    I’m another curmudgeon…and Henry’s economics don’t really cut it for me, either. Maybe things were different (and trains were a lot more expensive) back in Thoreau’s time, but a week ago I needed to take the train from Boston to Fitchburg and it cost $7.75. I could earn this in just over an hour at minimum wage – much less than the time it would take me to walk 30 miles. And if I personally had to walk 30 miles I wouldn’t be really enjoying myself at the end, much less stopping to pick blueberries…

  5. Ha! Glad to know I’m not alone in my grumpiness ;-)Lynn

  6. I don’t know…I think it is precisely BECAUSE I am running to Lacrosse games, school musicals, the grocery and coming home to mounds of laundry, dirty dishes and dust bunnies that makes me yearn for SIMPLICITY and good long walk.–Cindy

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