Ain’t Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson, Marc Aronson
It seems appropriate that I would discover this book years after it was published, when I was looking for something else. It was listed as a biography of John Henry, which it is in part. More quest than biography, as the title suggests. This short volume tells the story of history professor Scott Reynolds Nelson’s detective work, sometimes circuitous, sometimes serendipitous, but always fascinating, leading closer and closer to a true vision of the man behind the legend.
Part of my enjoyment of this book came from the memories it evoked of my own past in graduate school, doing historical research, arguing theories of how something might have been. History, like most other liberal arts fields, is open to speculation and full of people looking for evidence to suggest that their vision of the past is closer to the truth than another scholar’s. For children, and even adults, outside the field this is a rare view. Literal minded youth believe things are one way or another, not both or neither. While historians can say that John Henry both existed and didn’t (which is my reading of this book), children and some adults want to know definitively if he lived or not.
In large part, the beauty of this book is more in the lesson that it teaches of history work and the uncertainty of the past. Children reading this, or listening to this story, have to accept that the pictures uncovered are John Henry, but maybe not the John Henry. That John Henry died during a time period when things ascribed to him happened, but that it is not necessarily certain that he was involved.
When I book talked this book, I asked how many kids knew who John Henry was, and of those who did, who thought he was a real person. The kids were split, some were sure he was real and some were sure he wasn’t, but what they lacked is what this book demonstrates, the ability to see him as both.
I think that this is the beauty of speculative non fiction. If done right, it prompts children to think, to engage in more then one truth, to see that things are not static, even in the past, and that they have the ability to think and determine what is true once they learn to look at the data they are presented with.
When I do library tours, I ask the kids what the difference between non-fiction and fiction is, and usually someone shouts out “one is true and the other false.” As we walk to the beginning of the non-fiction stacks, I pull out books on Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, and I ask them if they think these creatures are real. Through our discussion on these tours I try to encourage children to look at the non-fiction as an area where the books are organized by subject, and tell them that they, as readers, have the responsibility to decide for themselves as they read the books here if they think they are true.
Critical thinking is the most useful skill anyone can have, and through reading, discussing, and thinking about books like Ain’t Nothing but a Man I believe children can begin to develop this skill.
This non-fiction Monday post is, in part, my response to the controversy over Marc Aaronson’s debate over speculation in children’s nonfiction.