Monday, December 1, 2008

Ain’t Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson with Marc Aronson

Ain't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson with Marc Aronson

Check out more Nonfiction Monday selections at Picture Book of the Day.

“John Henry told the Captain,
‘A man ain’t nothing but a man,
Before I let your steam drill beat me down,
I’ll die with a hammer in my hand.’”

Was the John Henry of this legendary song a real person? Did he really compete with a steam drill, and did he die doing so?

Ain't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry is historian Scott Reynolds Nelson’s story about his years-long search to find the answers to these questions and more.

Professor Nelson didn’t start out looking for John Henry. Instead, his initial search was to discover more about the 40,000 or so African-American men who laid railroad tracks throughout the South in the 19th century. There is virtually no information written about them, especially given the fact very few of the workers knew how to write. So, Nelson turned to songs as a means to help him learn more about this important yet missing page in our history. The one song he used as his main piece of evidence was the song about John Henry, a song that would set his research on a more focused path to discovering the real John Henry.
This is a fascinating and gripping book that forbids you to put it down until the very end. What is most captivating is the method in which Nelson presents the information—he’s a detective of the past, using clues to find answers about a person immortalized in a song.

Like any detective, some of his leads turn into dead-ends, but one day as he was sitting at his computer, looking at a scanned postcard that he had seen many times before, he found a clue that would eventually lead him to an amazing and heartbreaking discovery and helped him uncover the secret message the railroad workers worked into John Henry’s song.
The book is scattered with photographs, art, and drawings from the past that paint visuals of the people Nelson spent years searching for, and a section by Marc Aronson in the appendix tells readers, “How to be a Historian.” The appendix also includes information about Professor Nelson’s sources, suggestions for further reading, links to different versions of the song online, and more.

This is a book that I think would interest readers from ages 9 to 99, and it truly shows that history can be fun. Much more than memorizing dates and places and names, history can uncover amazing secrets of the past and take you on different journeys.

This is a must-have in any home, school, or public library, and I’m putting Nelson’s book for adults on the same topic at the top of my must-read list: Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend.

What Other Bloggers are Saying:

BooksForKidsBlog: "Nelson's account is a fascinating detective story which gives young people a different view of history and the work of doing history." (read more...)

Carol's Corner: "It's a fascinating journey and one that I think kids would absolutely love. " (read more...)

Bookends: "This is the kind of nonfiction that inspires and motivates and is fun too!" (read more...)

More info:
  • Reading level: Ages 9-12
  • Hardcover: 64 pages
  • Publisher: National Geographic Children's Books (December 26, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 142630000X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1426300004
  • Source: Review Copy from Publisher


  1. Looks fascinating -- our introduction to John Henry was the Caldecott Honor Book. It's pretty intense, but playful, and quite funny in a dark sort of way.

  2. Another great find. Thank you,

  3. Sounds cool! I never found much nonfiction I liked as a kid which was a real loss.

  4. My 4th grader just finished this book. She read it in one sitting and after lights out (hmmm). She loved it!! Here's what she said, "Mom, you have to read this book. It is mysterious and has real photographs. I think everyone should read it!"

    Thanks again.

  5. Daisy...thank you so much for letting me know your daughter liked the book. I'm so glad she enjoyed it! And her assessment is dead on!