Historian Scott Reynolds Nelson was sitting at his desk, completely stuck. After years of research, he’d come to a dead end. That’s when inspiration struck: he knew how to find the real John Henry. But, as he carefully shows the reader, that inspiration did not come out of nowhere, but rather was a gestalt of information that he had spent countless hours collecting.
While the book starts with the solution, the following chapters rewind to show the search process, and the ways in which the author’s thinking changed and evolved as more information came to light. It is perhaps the best explanation and example of how research (specifically historical research in this context, but easily applied to other areas of interest as well) that I have ever seen directed at children. The author manages to convey to the reader the excitement of digging through archives, and the frustration of being stymied, as well as the invigoration of seeing mental effort and expansive thinking rewarded. In so many cases history books simply present the facts in a dry recital of what happened and who did it. The story of how those facts came to be known turns out, in this case, to be just as interesting as the story the author was attempting to track down.
That story is about John Henry, the hero of popular nineteenth century ballads about a “steel drivin’ man” and his contest against a steam powered drill. The author’s thesis was that John Henry had been a real person, and he sets out to find him. Along the way, he also discusses institutionalized racism, Reconstruction, early railways, and the prison system. An afterword by Marc Aronson includes information about good research tips and techniques.
This book should be in every classroom.