book review: Ain’t nothing but a man

title: Ain’t nothing but a man: my quest to find the real John Henry

author: Scott Reynolds Nelson with Marc Aronson

date: National Geographic Books for Children, 2008

MG nonfiction

In Ain’t nothing but a man, Scott Reynolds walks us through his research to find out whether John Henry was a real man. His conversational tone enlivens the narrative by making both the process and the topic interesting.

Reynolds describes how he uses song lyrics, pictures and primary source documents (which are not often found on the internet) to guide his search. He uncovers not only information about John Henry, but much about life in post Civil War American that led to the song and the character we’ve come to know as John Henry.

I particularly like how Reynolds incorporated his methodology into his narrative rather than in an afterwards. I was able to see the authenticity of his work while reading and not find rather meaningful content as an aside.

Reynolds gives much value to the life of John Henry, someone most Americans get to know through a childhood song but who gave his life to build this country and yet his contributions went unmarked, as with many people of color in our history.

[This book is currently discount on Amazon selling for &7.58]

11 thoughts on “book review: Ain’t nothing but a man

  1. I am so happy I came upon your blog! I can already tell I will be returning. It sounds like we get two stories in one with this book. I am not sure which part is more valuable: the story of the research process or the story the research revealed. What a treat to get both!


  2. Hello!

    I found your blog through the Great Comment Challenge. I really like your review on this book. It sounds very interesting. I will add your RSS feed to my reader so I can keep track of your posts. Great to find another excellent kids lit blog!

    Happy New Year!


  3. My non-fiction side is very curious about this book. Loved your note about primary source documents. I might need to add that to my list of “things my son will never know about.” I hope that’s not true, but the reliance on the internet in recent years is mind boggling. I hear an NPR interview with Dave Barry, who said his novel research relied on Wikipedia. I don’t think he was joking ….


  4. Thanks for visiting my site & happily that led me to yours. The book sounds great, and I do like the idea of including the actual process of the search for documents/information to write the story with authority. I can see how this would be such an important mentor text for a history project. Thanks for the review!


  5. This is a great book! I’ve book talked it with our middle school students since it’s one of the Young Hoosier Nominees for this year. The author’s ever present voice in this book makes it a great non-fiction book for fiction lovers.


  6. My mom was a school librarian. Middle school. She loved every minute of helping students with research and finding the “just right” book for them to enjoy. When she passed, the school named the library after her. They painted a huge mural on the wall to celebrate her life. School librarians have such a special place in my heart. Thank you for what you do. You are an unsung hero, but I’ll sing about you all day long!

    Ali B.


  7. By threading research throughout the book, Nelson & Aronson are modeling *how* good research works (and probably where searching dead-ended, if there were ideas or facts they couldn’t confirm) to their readers, letting them know that it’s more-than-okay to question “what everyone knows” about something en route to discovering things.

    I’ll be looking for this one! (found you through MotherReader & Lee Wind’s Comment Challenge)


    1. Katy, That’s exactly what they’re doing! It is so well written, that readers of any age can learn about how to conduct research, the value of what previous knowledge brings to the experience and the necessity for interacting with the world around us and not just relying upon technology.


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