Reviews for I, Matthew Henson : Polar Explorer

Booklist Reviews 2008 February #1
*Starred Review* Written in Henson's first-person voice, each plain, eight-line poem begins with resistance to the prejudice and false perceptions the narrator experienced ("I did not sail to the tropics just to launder / shirts and cook meals"; "I meant / to prove myself as an explorer"), as step by step he earns Peary's trust and sails with him to Greenland. After several trips, during which he learned Inuit and befriended the indigenous people, "Peary picked me to go all the way to the Arctic, vowing / he could not make it without me." Including portraits and dynamic action scenes, the beautifully textured pastels show the icy landscape, the tough explorers, and the grim situation at home, as when Henson stands next to a "Whites Only!" sign, meeting hate while "exploring my own land." In the final climactic scene Peary, Henson, and four Eskimos (unnamed, unfortunately) are on the ice at the North Pole. The twist from negative to triumphant in each poem and the suspense that builds to the final journey make this a great combination of adventure in the wild landscape and personal struggle. Includes a detailed final note. Copyright 2008 Booklist Reviews.

Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2008 #2
Matthew Henson did not travel all the way to the North Pole in 1909 to be forgotten by history. Although his achievements were downplayed by expedition leader Admiral Peary and a country blinded by racism, he was posthumously awarded the National Geographic Society's Hubbard Medal and eventually buried in Arlington National Cemetery beside Peary, with whom he had worked for twenty years. In spare, poetic language, Weatherford tells Henson's story in first-person, eight-line stanzas, usually one to a double-page spread. Until the climactic last page, each segment begins with a negative clause ("I did not sail to the tropics just to launder shirts and cook meals"), an unusual and effective stylistic device. The story begins with Henson's early years and progresses through his work on sea and land before he joined Peary's Nicaraguan expedition, earning the man's trust and a place on the teams that sought the Pole. Weatherford points up Henson's particular contributions -- learning the language and skills of the northern natives he called Eskimos, building equipment, hiring guides, and carrying Peary when necessary. Velasquez's striking pastels support the text nicely and, toward the end, heighten suspense as the men try, and try again, until the final celebratory flag raising (an illustration modeled on Peary's own photograph of the team at the Pole). An author's note supplements the biographical information but does not include sources. Copyright 2008 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2007 December #1
A poetic first-person narrative puts readers in Matthew Henson's head as he endures institutionalized discrimination to pursue greatness in adventure, moving from cabin boy to able seaman, stock boy to explorer, eventually one of "[s]ix men--one black, one white, four Eskimos--" to reach the North Pole in 1909. Weatherford sets up her text with a series of negative statements that emphasize Henson's steely determination: "I did not sail to the tropics [with Peary] just to launder shirts and cook meals. I meant to prove myself as an explorer." It's an enormously effective device, laying out for readers Henson's drive to overcome the roles given to him by an unjust society in his quest for something more. Velasquez's full-bleed spreads present readers with a larger-than-life figure in equally monumental landscapes, the soft pastels on textured paper giving the illustrations a rough physicality. This effect is particularly evident in the polar scenes, the fuzzy lines evoking rugged rocks and drifting snow with equal success. An author's note fills in the gaps, including a brief note on Henson's post-Pole break with Peary that resulted in his decades-long obscurity. Lovely and inspiring. (Picture book/biography. 6-11) Copyright Kirkus 2007 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2008 January #4

Tough-minded and poetic, this biographical sketch draws much of its power from what it leaves unsaid, obliging readers to align themselves closely with the narrator. The speaker is Matthew Henson, who joined Robert Peary in planting the flag on the North Pole in 1909; the words Weatherford assign him testify to a lifetime spent in resolute pursuit of his ambitions. "I did not start as cabin boy, climb the ranks to able-bodied seaman... and learn trades and foreign tongues to be shunned by white crews who thought blacks were not seaworthy," he states. "My dreams had sails." Setting forth a dramatic list of what Henson "did not" do, the story points to extraordinary reserves of courage and perseverance: Henson sails with Peary, "again and again," through the frozen seas, starves, returns to the U.S. and marries, and tries once more to reach the North Pole. Where the text adopts Henson's perspective, Velasquez (previously paired with the author for Jesse Owens: Fastest Man Alive ) generally views Henson at an ennobling distance, envisioning him communicating with Eskimos (alone of Peary's men, he learned Inuit) or shielding his face, temporarily a railroad porter in the segregated South. His pastels are especially well suited to the polar scenes, where they suggest both the cold hard surfaces of snow and ice and the frozen colors of the skies. An endnote amplifies Henson's life and accomplishments. Ages 6-11. (Jan.)

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School Library Journal Reviews 2008 January

Gr 2-5-- This picture-book account of the explorer's life and accomplishments begins when the 13-year-old orphan signed on as cabin boy on the Katie Hines . After his captain died, no one would hire a black crewman, so he became a stock boy in a store where a chance meeting with Robert Peary changed the course of his life. Henson was hired as his assistant and together they made seven trips to the Arctic between the years 1891 and 1909. The book reveals the extreme hardships they faced: frigid cold, frozen waters, frostbite, harsh winds, and lack of food or funds. The capable assistant would save Peary's life twice, befriend the Inuit and learn their language, and intuitively lead the team to their destination when faulty instruments had failed them. Using sparse, poetic language, Weatherford tells Henson's story in the first person, beginning each page of text in a similar manner. The form effectively captures the subject's determination: "I did not start as 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." An author's note provides more biographical information. The mostly full-spread pastel illustrations use a palette of white, gray, pale blue, and brown to show the vast, icy landscape. Powerful words and images make this an excellent choice for units on explorers or African Americans.--Barbara Auerbach, New York City Public Schools

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