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Natural Man: The True Story of John Henry
Natural Man: The True Story of John Henry

Our Price: $9.95
Pages: 48
Trim: 7 x 10
Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 978-1-939160-85-0

by Steve Sanfield, Drawings by Peter J. Thornton

The ballad of John Henry has been a part of American folklore for over two centuries. This book, based on the legend, tells the story of this ``natural man.'' Weighing 33 pounds at birth, John Henry quickly matures into a giant of a man. Freed from slavery after the Civil War, he begins drifting around the country in pursuit of his life's calling. Upon witnessing a railroad track being laid, he realizes that he was born to be a ``steeldriving man.'' After a number of tremendous feats of speed, strength, and endurance John Henry meets his tragic death upon finishing as the victor in a race against a steam drill. The book includes the author's version of the ballad (there are over 50 versions), accompanied by the traditional music. Framed conte pencil drawings are found opposite nearly every page of the narrative, adding nicely to the legend's mystique. These moving drawings stress the geometric volumes of figures and objects. Sanfield's writing has a lyrical quality, and the paradox of man versus machine is evident in the setting, as America began to face the full brunt of the industrial revolution. A worthy addition to any collection of American folklore.


I've read several versions about John Henry. This has to be one of my favorites. I don't remember the music or the river boat scenes in previous versions. Great additions. I love the artwork, it is what attracted me to the book to begin with. I am definitely a "judge a book by the cover" person! The artwork fits the feel of the book and adds so much more to the words. This is a great example of a folktale. I can imagine the faces of the children as they read, listen to, the story and ask questions. I can see a lesson where they do not see the illustrations, to begin, and create their own drawings depicting what they see in the story. I am recommending "A Natural Man" to friends with children as well as colleagues. I plan to share it with my students!! 5 star book! - mtnhicks.wordpress.com

Mr. Sanfield also has a literary man's eye and has filled in the story in places where balladry drops transitions and folk tales skim over motivation. In other words, this is a standout retelling. - New York Times Book Review — Jane Yolen

The ballad of John Henry is as much a part of American folklore as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill; the battle of man vs. machine for which the victorious John Henry gave his life is one most school children know. Sanfield tells the legend anew, weaving familiar tidbits (that John Henry was born with his hammer in his hand) with splendid poetic images: "There was a red, copper moon that didn't give off any light"; "The Mississippi River ran upstream for a thousand miles, and John Henry was born." The fight to the death on the railroad line, a death that John Henry predicted when he was two, is grippingly told. Thornton's softly diffused black-and-white drawings capture the spirit of the tale, moody and ominous in places, full of humor in others. Music and lyrics to one version of the ballad are provided in the back of this triumphant book about a genuine hero.- Publishers Weekly