Monday, August 03, 2009

Transcendentalism For The Picture Book Crowd

I discovered Henry Hikes to Fitchburg and Henry Builds a Cabin, written and illustrated by D.B. Johnson, when I read about the first title at our local library's blog. (See, blogs do encourage reading.) They are both wonders and what makes them so wonderful is that they are truly picture books for little readers that really do express something about the adult historical figure that inspired them.

The "Henry" in these books is a bear, but he's modeled on Henry David Thoreau and these books clearly draw on Thoreau's Walden, which I just happen to be rereading this year. (I say "this year" because at the rate of a few pages a couple of times a week it appears that it's going to take me that long to finish it.) Sounds kind of adult philosophical, does it not?

The illustrations for Johnson's books are lovely and all kid with plenty of focus on the bear characters. And the text is limited to one or two simple lines per page. What's amazing is that those few words tap so well into my understanding of Thoreau and Walden.

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg illustrates what I think was Thoreau's contention that we become enslaved to jobs to buy ourselves things when we could live fuller lives by doing with less. In this case, Henry's friend puts in a great deal of time working at jobs to earn the money to pay for a train ticket to Fitchburg, while Henry just makes the trip on foot.

"Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!" Thoreau said in Walden. In case he hadn't made his point, he added, "Simplify, simplify." Henry Builds a Cabin certainly illustrates that as Henry Bear points out to his bear friends, Emerson and Alcott, the areas outdoors that will serve as his dining room, library, and ballroom.

I couldn't find a passage in Walden that stated that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott lent a hand, but Thoreau does say, "At length, in the beginning of May, with the help of some of my acquaintances, rather to improve so good an occasion for neighborliness than from any necessity, I set up the frame of my house. No man was ever more honored in the character of his raisers than I. They are destined, I trust, to assist at the raising of loftier structures one day." He also says he moved in on the 4th of July, just as Henry Bear did.

I think these picture books do a great job bringing a philosophy to child readers.

Johnson has written and illustrated three more Henry books.

Training Report: All was quiet with the injured and worn family elders last week, and I had a fantastic few days of work. We're back to what has become normal at Chez Gauthier--medical appointments, research, and e-mails to relatives. And, seriously, we don't even have anyone with a crisis.

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