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Ain't Nothing But a Man (with Marc Aronson)

    Who was the real John Henry? The story of this legendary African-American figure has come down to us in so many songs, stories, and plays, that the facts are often lost. Historian Scott Nelson brings John     Henry alive for young readers in his personal quest for the true story of the man behind the myth. Nelson presents the famous folk song as a mystery to be unraveled, identifying the embedded clues within the     lyrics, which he examines to uncover many surprising truths. He investigates the legend and reveals the real John Henry in this beautifully illustrated book.

    Nelson’s narrative is multilayered, interweaving the story of the building of the railroads, the period of Reconstruction, folk tales, American mythology, and an exploration of the tradition of work songs and their     evolution into blues and rock and roll. This is also the story of the author’s search for the flesh-and-blood man who became an American folk hero; Nelson gives a first-person account of how the historian            works, showing history as a process of discovery. Readers rediscover an African-American folk hero. We meet John Henry, the man who worked for the railroad, driving steel spikes. When the railroad                threatens to replace workers with a steam-powered hammer, John Henry bets that he can drive the beams into the ground faster than the machine. He wins the contest, but dies in the effort.

    Prizes

             Aesop Prize (Folklore Society of America)
             Jane Addams Prize, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 2009
             Notable Children's Book in the Language Arts, National Center for Teachers of English, 2009
             Publishers Weekly 2008 Best Books of the Year
             Booklist's Top 10 Black History Books for Youth
             Chicago Public Library's "Best of the Best" for 2008
             Booklist Editors' Choice 2008
             American Library Association Notable Book
             American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults
             Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People - National Council for the Social Studies/Children's Book Council
             Starred Review, Booklist (February 1, 2008)
             Starred Review, Publishers Weekly (December 24, 2007)
             Starred Review, School Library Journal (December 2007)
 

    Reviews

    "Ain't Nothing but a Man" is the tale of a detective chasing the ultimate cold case - a missing person who may or may not be fictional - and it's so engaging, so full of the thrill of the hunt, that it feels mean to      dampen the book's pleasures even a little by telling you right away what, or rather who, Nelson found...Not since that scene in "All the President's Men," with Woodward and Bernstein sifting through                 mountains of checkout slips in the Library of Congress, has the tedium of a paper chase been made to seem so cool." -- Lawrence Downes, New York Times Book Review

"In this fascinating book, Scott Reynolds Nelson tells readers how, as a child, he first became interested in unraveling the stories behind historical artifacts and determining the difference between fact and fiction. Nelson...takes the reader through the years of research detailing how he followed the threads of obscure clues until he came to the conclusion that Henry was indeed a real man. Along the way, readers are treated to fascinating facts about the building of America's railroads and about the men who built them." -- Anne M. G. Gray, Library Media Collection

"Not many history books are written in first person, but this is no ordinary history book. It traces a historian’s quest for the man behind the legend of John Henry. Nelson’s research involved listening to hundreds of variants of the song “John Henry,” learning about post-Civil War railway construction projects, visiting possible sites for the legendary contest between man and steam drill, and in one groundbreaking moment, glancing at the 1910 postcard on his desktop, hearing the lyrics of a version of “John Henry” in his mind, and making a connection that no other modern historian had considered."-- Carolyn Phelan, Booklist (starred review)

"This book is as much about a historian’s quest for the truth as it is a biography of the well-known strong man. Nelson chronicles how he began to learn about African-American workers on the railroad in the South.... Noting how dead ends occur during research, the author explains how he overcame roadblocks and took his search in other directions...an excellent example of how much detective work is needed for original research."-- Blair Christolon, School Library Journal (starred review)

"Nelson models the study of history as an active and passionate pursuit as he shows readers how he pieced together a panoply of facts and anecdotes to find the real-life subject of the folk song "John Henry.""-- Publisher's Weekly

"African-American railroad builders sang about John Henry, the “steel-driving man,” but no one had ever verified that he was a real person. Historian Nelson set out to find the answer, describing the trail he followed from clues in song lyrics, and what he uncovered is as fascinating as the legend." -- Curriculum Connections

"With assistance from Aronson, a veteran author/editor and nabob of nonfiction, Nelson....suspensefully retraces his search for the man behind the ballad.... Supported by a generous array of late-19th- and early-20th-century photos—mostly of chain-gang "trackliners" and other rail workers—the narrative pieces together clues from song lyrics, an old postcard, scattered business records and other sources, arriving finally at both a photo that just might be the man himself, and strong evidence of the drilling contest's actual location." -- Kirkus Reviews

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