I usually work Saturdays, but when I have the day off I make sure to listen to Weekend Edition on NPR where children's (and adult) author Daniel Pinkwater joins Scott Simon to read a picture book. Back in February of 2000, they read DB Johnson's Henry Hikes to Fitchburg and I knew I had to have it. Johnson's art work is amazing but, even better than that is his bear, Henry. Henry is none other than Henry David Thoreau and Johnson performs the amazing feat of taking events from Henry's life and turning them into bite-sized stories that do a beautiful job, with both images and words, of illustrating the philosophy of this American Transcendentalist.
In Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, Henry and his friend decide to visit Fitchburg, which is thirty miles from his home in Concord, MA. Henry says he will walk because it's "the fastest way to travel." His friend says he'll work until he has enough money to take the train and they'll see who gets to Fitchburg first. Johnson takes this simple premise and, in a very nonjudgemental way, shows each bear's journey.
While Henry is hopping from rock to rock across the Sudbury River, pressing flowers and ferns in a book making, a raft to paddle up the Nashua River and noshing on honey and blackberries his friend is doing chores for the historical residents of Concord like the Alcotts, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. When Henry arrives in Fitchburg his friend is sitting in the moonlight waiting for him, having arrived on a little bit ahead of him. He points out that the train was faster, to which Henry responds, "I know. I stopped for blackberries." Brilliant! Johnson ends the book with a brief, easy to grasp page of information about Henry Thoreau himself, quoting a passage from Walden that relates to the story Johnson tells in his book.
I love the simplicity and the beauty of Henry Hikes to Fitchburg and think that, as a picture book, it works on so many levels. In it's most basic form, it's a story about two bears getting from one place or another. I have read this book many times to my own children over the last ten years and at story time at the bookstore and kids of all ages love it. When you read it to older kids, it's the kind of book that can open up a discussion of values and time vs. money, the value of working for what you want, etc. My husband, who teaches high school economics, reads this book to his students every semester. It's the kind of book that just really makes you think. Writing a 32 page picture book with this kind of impact is a fantastic feat. Writing AND illustrating a story of this calibre, even more impressive.
In the ten years since Henry Hikes to Fitchburg was first published, Johnson has written four other books about Henry the bear. In Henry Builds a Cabin Johnson tells two stories. In the first, he shows Henry building his tiny cabin on Walden pond (10 feet wide and 15 feet long) with the help of his friend Emerson (as in Ralph Waldo). As he builds Emerson comments on the lack of light, lack of space to dance in and lack of room to eat in. Henry responds, "It's bigger than it looks." He points out that the bean patch behind the cabin will be his dining room, a sunny spot under a tree will be his library and a path to the pond with a flat patch at the end will be the grand stairway to his ballroom. Again, with simplicity and ease, Johnson translates Thoreau's philosophies into a beautifully illustrated story. The author's note at the end of this book shares information about the cabin and the two years Thoreau spent living on Walden Pond. He also includes a list of materials and their costs. In 1845 Henry David Thoreau spent a whopping $28.12 1/2 cents to build his cabin in the woods.
Henry Works, Henry Climbs a Mountain and Henry's Night are the other books in this series. I hope you will seek them out and share them with your children, no matter how old they are. I can often be heard griping about picture books with a message and how banal and pedantic they often are. Writing a good picture book that has a message is a very difficult task. Only slightly harder than writing a good picture book itself. When an author and artist like DB Johnson can write and illustrate his own picture books that have a subtle but tangible (and valuable) message, that guy deserves to have his name sung from the rooftops!