May 2002

Henry the bear is back

By D.B. Johnson
Review by
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Henry, the bear who bears a remarkable resemblance to Henry David Thoreau, is back! D.B. Johnson's new book takes up where his first and widely acclaimed picture book, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, left off. Henry decides he would like to build a cabin. But because Henry is really Henry Thoreau, his cabin will be different from his neighbors'. Inspired by Thoreau's own journals, Johnson has created a joyful yet contemplative picture book that chronicles the building of his famous cabin on Walden Pond.

Johnson paints a vaguely cubist world where, in the space between opposing pages, snow changes to sun and soil bursts into seedlings. Perspective changes many times on a single page. To add to the fun, some familiar friends from American history visit Henry to offer advice. Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson is concerned that the cabin is too small to eat in. Bronson Alcott fears the cabin will be too dark to read in. Another neighbor, known only as Lydia, is concerned that the cabin is too small to dance in. Is our noble bear worried? Not at all. It turns out that he has a plan of his own. He eats his beans in his "dining room," which is actually adjacent to his hoe and bean patch. He enjoys his books in the "library" the woods themselves, where the trees keep him company and a chipmunk reads over his shoulder. He then dances down the "grand stairway" a path that leads to his pond.

Each time the reader opens the book, he or she will notice new details hiding in the illustrations. I especially liked the woodland creatures mirroring Henry's action on each page: when he is putting up the beams, a blackbird is constructing her nest. When Henry is boring holes for the corner posts, a woodpecker is pecking holes in a neighboring tree.

A note by the author tells a little more about the real Thoreau and his cabin. Especially interesting is the final cost: $28.12! Henry Hikes to Fitchburg celebrated the joy of the journey, and Henry Builds a Cabin reminds us that a wonderful home can be small and simple. Both books are a wonderful introduction to the life and philosophy of Thoreau.

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Henry Builds a Cabin

Henry Builds a Cabin

By D.B. Johnson
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN 9780618132010

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