Jennifer's Reviews > I, Matthew Henson: Polar Explorer

I, Matthew Henson by Carole Boston Weatherford
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Mar 27, 08

bookshelves: minority-author-or-topic, picture-books, african-american-and-black
Read in April, 2008

• The oil pastel illustrations are beautiful and convey the majesty and wonder of the arctic landscape.
• Weatherford’s choice to start off all of the text blocks with the phrase “I did not…” communicates the hard work, struggle, and determination of Matthew Henson to accomplish his dream of making a place for himself in history, as well as the prejudices that Henson experienced. However, because of the choice to include “I did not…” it might be somewhat confusing to younger readers who do not understand the construction, and that Matthew Henson actually did do those things, but he did them with the intention of accomplishing more than society expected of him. An example of this is, “I did not start as a cabin boy, climb the ranks to able-bodied seaman, sail to five continents, and learn trades and foreign tongues to be shunned by white crews who thought blacks were not seaworthy” (p. 4).
• It is interesting that Robert Peary is first introduced merely as a “customer, a naval officer,” but not by name (p. 5).
• The illustrations and novel depict Henson doing a variety of tasks, actually showing his talent, intelligence, and hard work. However, instead of making him seem superhuman, they also help us to see Henson as a real person, especially in the pictures of him talking and working with the Inuit. These pictures, along with the descriptions on these pages give the impression of Henson as compassionate, as Inuit records and testimony from other crew members (in other works) attest.
• I feel that the language in this book is simple enough to convey historical events in a children’s book, but still flowing and pretty, unlike the stilted language in some of the other works.
• On page 14, there is actually a picture of Henson carrying Peary, illustrating that Henson saved Peary’s life countless times. It is an interesting illustration, because in this case, the image of a black man carrying a white man doesn’t have the negative connotation of the white man taking advantage of the black man. Rather, it shows Henson’s strength, compassion, and the necessity of trusting your comrades when on a dangerous expedition.
• Touches on Henson’s time as a railroad porter and the racism that he experienced, as well as the racism that kept him in financial hardship between expeditions despite his plethora of skills
• It is interesting that the harsh arctic wilderness is personified as the Inuit god Kokoyah throughout the book. Studying Matthew Henson could also serve as a springboard for learning more about the Inuit culture, accomplishments, etc.
• It is strange that the names of the four Inuit who reached the North Pole along with Peary and Henson are not listed. Also, it is odd that the illustration of Henson and the four Inuit at the North Pole does not include all of the flags that they held in reality, just the American flag. This could have been a thematic choice to convey American accomplishment, and emphasize that the face of America includes, or should include, blacks.
I was very impressed with the amount of historical detail (especially the different phases and occupations of Henson) and North Pole expedition specifics (leads, dog teams, moving ice castles, etc.) were included in the book. They were not necessarily explained in depth, but they were touched upon in the text and illustrations. I like that the pictures and text are engrossing because they tell a more narrative tale (unlike traditional biographies) of Henson’s life and conquest of the North Pole. I think that it was a wise decision to include an author’s note about the specific details of Henson’s life so that the picture book can be put into context.
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