John Henry
by Julius Lester
illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

A beautifully illustrated retelling of the folk ballad / tall tale of John Henry, who was stronger than a dozen men, had a generous heart, and taught others the importance of a well-lived life.

Rhythmic text makes this a story that "begs to be read aloud" (Publisher's Weekly). This book is a great anytime read, but is especially fitting for American frontier or tall tales units. Aside from his larger than life abilities, John Henry models many positive virtues and attitudes. Lester integrated a number of contemporary references that help tie the story to modern times.

This book is highly recommend as a discussion starter about the personal traits that really made John great.  Was it his tremendous feats of strength or was it how John Henry treated and cared for the people around him?  This is definitely a book that kids can learn character traits from!

Reading Level for John Henry

Interest Level: Grade 1 - 5
DRA Level:  40
Lexile Measure:  AD720L
Guided Reading Level:  S

Read-Aloud vs. Individual Reading:
For kids in first to fourth grade, this book will need to be a read-aloud rather than for individual reading, as children generally do not read on the reading level (difficulty level) of this book until the end of fourth grade. The majority of fifth graders should be able to read this book independently.

Awards and Accolades for John Henry

  • Caldecott Winners--1995 Honor
  • Society of Illustrators' Gold Medal
  • ALA Notable Children's Book
  • NCSS Notable Social Studies Children's Book
  • Boston Globe/Horn Book Award & Fanfare Honor
  • Parents Magazine Best Children's Book of the Year
  • Winner of the Aesop Prize

See Inside John Henry

Below are the first four pages from inside this award winning book.  "Pinkney's marvelous watercolors, abundantly rich in detail, convey both the superior strength and the warm sense of humanity that make John Henry perhaps a more down-to-earth character than some other tall-tale figures. The paintings' muted earth tones add a realistic touch to the text, bringing this John Henry alive." (School Library Journal)

John Henry Lesson / Activity Ideas

The website Reading is Fundamental has a page with different activities to go with John Henry by Ezra Jack Keats.  Given that both books are biographies, many of those activities can be used with this book as well.  Access the page here:  John Henry lesson / activity ideas #1

And, of course, there are loads of related activities for this book on the popular teacher website  (If you aren't familiar with this site, it's full of lesson plans, activities, learning games, and other curriculum materials made by teachers. We LOVE the site!!). To see these John Henry lesson / activity ideas, click the link.