Sunday, June 14, 2009

Non-Fiction Monday: I, Matthew Henson

I love a book where you come away with new knowledge of someone or something you had absolutely no idea existed. In I, Matthew Henson: Polar Explorer, I learned about Matthew Henson who, together with Robert Peary, became the first men to reach the North Pole.

I, Matthew Henson: Polar Explorer is written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Eric Velasquez. Through poetry, it tells the life story of Matthew Henson, an African American man with big dreams of exploring the world. Born in 1866, Henson lived in a time when African Americans had very limited opportunities in the world. Through hard work and a little luck, he accomplished goals most people only dream about. Written in lyrical first person verse, the hardships he encountered along the way (such as serving as a manservant, frigid weather and racism) are beautifully and realistically depicted:

"We had not survived the frigid cold
that broke some and killed others
to let our dream melt when hope
and cash ran low. While others gave up,
we returned to the polar region
and, guided by Eskimos, fetched
a prize from the ice cap--a meteor,
which Peary sold to raise funds."

Henson, Peary and four Eskimos reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909. While the book ends on a positive note, there's an extensive author's note at the end of the book that talks about the controversies that Henson and Peary experienced after their journey. Someone else claimed to have gotten there first, and then some authorities dismissed their accomplishment because of the color of Henson's skin. While eventually all was resolved, the book presents a realistic portrayal of the hardships experienced by one African American at the turn of the century, and how he continued to follow his dream, despite the obstacles.

BookNosher Tidbits: I, Matthew Henson won the following awards:
Kirkus Reviews Editor's Choice for Children
Starred reviews: Publisher's Weekly, Booklist School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews
Best Book: Kirkus Reviews Reading Guide

BookNosher Activities: I found a wonderful website created by the Bellingham School District in Bellingham WA. Explorers of the World is a site about explorers of land, ideas, sky, and art. It asks the question: "What kinds of people choose a life of exploration, adventure and danger--and where would we be without them? Your students will answer those questions as they investigate explorers and determine their impact on our world."

While the website is geared towards teachers, I think parents will find a lot of fun activities to do with their child too. For instance, one of my favorites involves inviting children to plan an expedition of their own and write journal entries about their trip. They have to come up with obstacles and ways of dealing with them, and tell whether their expedition was successful.

There are links to lots of other sites, so parents and teachers have many resources to choose from. Check it out, it's a great companion to I, Matthew Henson.


The Wild About Writing Trio said...

I have never heard of Matthew Henson before. His story sounds fascinating. Thanks for sharing a bit of it with us.


carminette said...

For someone as seeminly little known as Henson, there are a surprising number of books for kids about him. I also like the one National Geographic put out- Onward : a photobiography of African-American polar explorer Matthew Henson by Delores Johnson.
I really like your activity idea- I am right in the middle of planning a "virtual walk" with my co-workers where we pick a destination and record mileage walked. Perhaps I should suggest the North Pole.