In the folksong “John Henry,” John is a railroad worker who makes a promise to beat a steam powered drill by digging with his own two hands and his hammer. He says, “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.” As the story goes, John indeed beats the steam powered drill in a competition just as he promised. He also drops dead with his hammer in his hand…just like he promised!
Men swinging hammers, and later steam drills, were used in the 1800s to break through rocks to build America’s railroads. Like the John Henry in the song, thousands of men worked to build our railroads. Those men also died by the thousands from the tough physical labor and the dust that clogged their lungs. Those men sang songs to help them keep up a steady rhythm of hammering. One of those songs is “John Henry.” The song tells their story.
The author of this book set out to find out if there ever really was a man named John Henry. Was he just a legend, like Paul Bunyan? Was there any truth in the song? He traced many different versions of the John Henry song over time. He compared the lyrics to what was going on in railroad history and he uncovered the amazing and heartbreaking story of the men who made America’s railroads. The John Henry song tells the story of a man, but it also symbolizes all the men, especially African-American, Chinese-American & Irish-American men who literally worked themselves to death. It makes you wonder, why didn’t they quit? Many of the men were prisoners in state prisons loaned out to the railroad to do heavy labor. The rest were extremely poor and and had little choice but to accept this kind of work if they hoped to feed their families. Author: Scott Reynolds
Listen to this recording of men singing “John Henry”:
Simthsonian Audio of men working and singing “John Henry” (1947-1948)
Can’t you imagine yourself swinging a hammer to the rhythm? The work would be hot and back breaking. It would be hard to breathe. You can hear some of the hopelessness and sorrow in the voices too. Look at some pictures from the book:
Emmy is trying so hard to be good. Her parents are busy jet-setting all over the world in search of money and status while Emmy is left home alone with her cold and distant nanny Miss Barmy. Still, Emmy tries to be good. No one at school seems to like or care about Emmy either – not one person in the classroom seems to notice she exists at all. And yet Emmy STILL tries to be good. “She did her homework without being told. She ate all her vegetables, even the slimy ones. And she never talked back to her nanny, Miss Barmy, although it was almost impossible to keep quiet, some days. She really was a little too good. Which is why she liked to sit by the Rat. The Rat was not good at all . . .” The rat is Emmy’s classroom pet. He isn’t cute or cuddly, in fact, he’s a nasty little beast! Emmy can sometimes relate to the rat, because some days, she’d like to be a nasty little beast too!
One day, when the rat bites Emmy, she finds that she can actually hear what he is saying. As if the rat’s poor behavior isn’t bad enough, now she has to listen to his crabby complaining, pouting, bragging, and whining. His rotten attitude is hardly worth having this startling new power! Then the rat bites Joe, the class cool guy, who can now hear him speak too..and then he bites Joe again and shrinks him to the size of an action figure! What’s a good friend like Emmy to do but offer to get bitten a second time and shrink too? Now a few inches high, Joe and Emmy free the rat and begin an adventure to find out the source of the rat’s power and how to reverse it. Along the way, they get help from some new four legged friends and get on the trail of Emmy’s own Miss Barmy, who isn’t just cold and distant, she’s evil too!
The rat is definately the star in this one. His biting comments and sarcastic one-liners kept me laughing through the whole book. Emmy reminds me of Molly Moon from Molly Moon’s Incredible Book of Hypnotism. Both girls feel isolated, alone and unloved, yet they don’t give up on their search for friendship and happiness. Author: Lynne Jonell Illustrator: Jonathan Bean
Read Chapter One Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat
Like you, the four Penderwick sisters are on summer vacation. Their Dad has rented a house in the Berkshire Mountains where he lets the girls roam on their own to seek out adventure. Rosalind (the boss), Jane (the dreamer, novelist), Skye (the temperamental competitor) & Batty (the shy animal lover) find adventure next door when one of the girls spots a figure looking out the window of the fancy mansion next door. The girls set out to investigate the mountain, the mansion & the figure in the window and find an unlikely kindred spirit. Author: Jeanne Birdsall
Sixth grader Addison had a taste of “normal” while her mother and step-father Dwight were married. She even had two younger half sisters to share her life with. But after the divorce, Dwight got custody of her two half sisters and Addie began a new and different life with “Mommers”.
Addie’s mom sleeps most of the day and then leaves Addie alone at night to “go out” or follow her “business interests” with a new boyfriend. It isn’t that Mommers doesn’t love Addie, it’s that she doesn’t take care of her. Mommers is irresponsible, doesn’t tell the truth and often leaves Addie alone for days with very little food. Mommers shows up with food and promises for the future just enough times to keep Addie believing that things will get better…get more normal…but things don’t get better.
Addie works hard in school, practices her flute and tries really hard to make it appear that her life is normal to her Grandpa, to Dwight, to her neighbors and to her teacher. More than anything, Addie doesn’t want to get Mommers in trouble. Addie loves Mommers, but deep down longs for the life her half sisters have with Dwight and his new wife. A near tragedy when Addie is left alone brings out the truth. It’s time for Mommers to make a choice. Author: Leslie Connor
Molly Moon is just plain miserable. She lives in a dirty orphanage with a mean matron and kids that bully her. She feels ugly and unloved and not in any way special. That all changes the day she visits the library (great things always happen there!) and discovers a mysterious book about hypnotism. After reading the book, Molly discovers that with a flash of her dazzling eyes, she can make people do anything she wants. Molly’s life is about to get much, much better! “So far in life, Molly had drawn a short straw. Now she was going to get what was due to her … She felt sure that with hypnotism under her belt, she’d never be short of money again. And as for people, Molly decided there and then that from now on, no one would push her or pinch her or boss her or bully her or ignore her. She was going to be somebody now and the world better watch out, because a new, shiny Molly Moon was about to burst through the ether and dazzle it.” Watch out world, here comes the new and improved Molly Moon! Author: Georgia Byng