IN APPRECIATION OF THE ART OF JOHN HENDRIX AND JOHN BROWN: HIS FIGHT FOR FREEDOM BY MARGIE CULVER
After nearly thirty-five years as a teacher librarian, having grown up in a home where reading, despite not having much money for books, was valued, I’ve come to realize I not only love books and reading but I’ve become a collector of books. It’s not just about the story anymore (although the power of story will never diminish for me) but everything involved in the creation of a book. I suspect the reason for this is my writing posts for my blog, reading other blogs and the annual speculation regarding the Caldecott and Newbery awards. If you want to be a part of the conversation, you need to be informed.
In my way of thinking if an author, illustrator or author/illustrator is taking years to bring us their books, I want to know as much as I can about the process. When a book reaches out and grabs your attention, I want to know what it is about the writing or illustrations or the combination of both that generates that response. This appreciation for the making of a book when passed on to students is golden. It’s not only taking the time, to pause, to share book love but looking at the why. It’s getting to know the authors and illustrators and their work on a more personal level.
For several years a particular artist’s work has caught my attention but it wasn’t until I wrote a review for my blog that I began to examine his signature style with more interest. In 2012 John Hendrix illustrated Deborah Hopkinson’s book, A Boy Called Dickens (Schwartz & Wade Books). Creative typography, authentic depiction of place and time, fine-lined details and color palette highly enhanced the narrative. It was if you were holding a piece of history in your hands.
Intrigued I started working my way back to his earlier work. Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, A Civil War Hero (Abrams Books For Young Readers, 2011) is a collaboration with author Marissa Moss. Not only are the illustrations incredible in this title but Hendrix includes an Artist’s Bibliography along with his Artist’s Note. In his Artist’s Note he says:
The first job of any illustrator is to communicate—with both clarity and poetry. Images provide context and information, but they should also amplify the text in unexpected ways. This is the third book I’ve illustrated that is set in the years surrounding the Civil War. But even with this experience, I have to collect lots of visual resources before I can start drawing a book like this.
Hendrix’s first picture book illustrations came in 2008 with Abe Lincoln Crosses A Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale (Introducing His Forgotten Frontier Friend) (Schwarz & Wade Books) by Deborah Hopkinson. His visuals enhance the text but also respond to it; often the narrator will chat with the illustrator. On the book’s endpapers and several times within the story an artist’s hand with a pencil or paintbrush will appear. It is in this title readers, in the picture book realm, are first introduced to the unique typography used skillfully and frequently by John Hendrix. On his website he states:
I love love love typography. … But, the building blocks of illustration is word and image. Without text, there is no such thing as illustration. So why not have them in the same space and interacting in the same language. Also, as an artist who is writing his own books, I feel like I have to offer something that a writer alone or illustrator alone can’t provide. So, the interaction with text inside the frame is a way to create a hybrid language in my work.
Even though Abe Lincoln Crosses A Creek: A Tall Thin Tale (Introducing His Forgotten Frontier Friend) was John Hendrix’s picture book debut as an illustrator, he had been working on his second book for quite some time. This title was the first where he was both the author and the illustrator. On January of this year when he posted a tweet saying John Brown: His Fight For Freedom was for sale on his website, I knew I had to have a copy. It was the only one of his books I had not read yet. It is a decision I’m glad I made.
Even with an AP American history class in high school what I’ve learned about certain people and events is from snippets in textbooks. What I knew about John Brown is not how he is portrayed in text and pictures by Hendrix. Like the best of nonfiction picture books, this book brings a completely different perspective of the man and his life to readers; presenting a more balanced approach, insights generating discussion and inviting further investigation.
Hudson, Ohio, a community of abolitionists, was the home of John Brown and his family in 1840. More than his neighbors John Brown believed black people should not only be free but equal. He greeted and treated them as such, welcoming them into his home for meals and gatherings. He and his father, Owen, were responsible for moving slaves from one point to another on the Underground Railroad. John Brown lived as a committed Christian in word and actions.
It was the strength of these beliefs which began to set John Brown apart from his other neighbors drawing the attention of Frederick Douglas. In a meeting with Douglas in 1847 John Brown revealed his plan; a plan for an army to liberate the slaves thereby crippling the Southern economy. Although Frederick Douglas was not convinced this was the way to end slavery without significant losses, he admired Brown.
Within seven years the fight to make Kansas either a free or slave state was taking a bloody toll. It was here the passion of his beliefs led Brown to become a marked man, a traitor to the government. Altering his appearance with a beard, no longer able to return home, he ventured into Canada where he met Harriet Tubman. In her John Brown had an ally.
John Brown was confident he and his band of men could take control of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, the location of a federal armory and a key stronghold for the Southern cause. Ultimately it was his concern for hostages and loss of life that lead to the unsuccessful raid and his capture. John Brown never wavered in the veracity of his convictions declaring them anew on the date of his death by hanging on December 2, 1859.
For the time in John Brown’s life in which John Hendrix chooses to focus we come to know the man prior to the historic raid on Harper’s Ferry. Years of research give Hendrix the ability to share with readers the complex nature of this historic figure; a man of peace bringing his black neighbor friends to the front of the church to sit in his seats while moving his family to the back where they had been sitting and a man driven to violence killing five pro-slavery men one evening after his family and other abolitionists had been threatened. Hendrix offers explanations of relevant historical terms within the context of his narrative of Brown’s thoughts and actions; immersing readers in the events of that time period. Here are a couple of passages from the book.
Pro-slavery militiamen—the “Border Ruffians”—were driving out the peaceable and unprepared “free-staters.” Some of these men were recruited by slave owners and even Southern elected officials to move to Kansas and make trouble for all who opposed slavery. Determined to make Kansas a slave state at any cost, the Ruffians destroyed crops, burned entire settlements, and killed those who got in their way.
Like a great fuming tornado John swept across the plains to fight for Kansas. He fought many battles on those windy plains, but it was a dark night along Pottawatomie Creek that made him notorious.
In the early dark hours of Monday, October 17, 1859, it all began.
John led the assault on the armory. Swiftly coming down the mountain to the riverside, he and his men cut telegraph wires, took the bridge, and crossed the Potomac River into Harpers Ferry. The armory was guarded by only one watchman and was easily secured as the town slept.
As soon as you open the matching jacket and cover you are treated to the full force of John Hendrix’s illustrative style. Meticulous layout, design, detail, typography and a color palette rich in shades of brown, rust, gray, golden yellow and blue immediately draw your attention to the person of John Brown; there is no doubt as to the man’s purpose and his will to accomplish his goals. His inclusion of the Alpha and Omega symbols, the American flag, the stormy landscape behind John Brown and the children and on the back Brown’s quote on a torn piece of weathered paper reading:
“I WILL RAISE A STORM IN THIS COUNTRY THAT WILL NOT BE STAYED SO LONG AS THERE IS A SLAVE ON ITS SOIL”
is a prelude to the informative and enlightening contents found in the book. (At John Hendrix’s web site he displays the process involved in the creation of the jacket as well as thumbnails of many interior illustrations. The link is here.)
The majority of the illustrations rendered in pen and ink with fluid acrylic washes are spread across two pages or one and a half, perspective shifting, a panoramic scene such as John greeting a neighbor standing among sheep on this homestead, or one closer showing him driving a furniture wagon during the night transporting a slave to a safe house or only a portion of his hand, finger pointing to Harper’s Ferry on a large map, depending on the text. The accuracy of the attire worn by the people, the farm implements, the architecture, wagons, and landscape add to the authenticity of the title.
In an email I received from Hendrix he states:
Yes, the type and costumes and equipment reference is very similar to Sarah Edmonds with John Brown. I’m working on another historical project and just got back from a trip to do some more research for uniforms and costumes and equipment from that era. It’s important to be not only accurate, but portray the visual environment faithfully, but also with some artistic license.
In all of the facial expressions of John Brown, Hendrix portrays the true character of the man, the emotions he might have been feeling at the time in any given situation; a determined force whirling across Kansas, a leader realizing the flaws in his plan as he, his men and their hostages are trapped at Harper’s Ferry and a wounded man, still strong in his faith, prior to his hanging.
John Brown: His Fight for Freedom was and continues to be an impressive debut for John Hendrix as author and illustrator. In a Q and A (linked here) Hendrix addresses his reasons for writing about John Brown but I was even more curious about the first spark of interest. His reply to me was:
I loved John Brown as a visual subject from my time I spent in Kansas. I lived in Lawrence for seven years and even worked on a brochure about him for the Kansas Board of Tourism while I was at a boutique design firm, working as a designer at the time. In Kansas, he is very much like Paul Bunyan or the like, very much a hero and folk legend. So, I was predisposed to like him, even before I started studying him seriously. Although he is associated with the east coast and Harpers Ferry, he spent a lot of time in Kansas and it was the birthplace of his national reputation.
John Hendrix has a detailed and explanatory two page author’s note at the end along with selected sources and an index.
Margie Culver can’t remember a time when she was not reading. With every turn of page her views, impressions and understanding of the world, past, present, future and fantastical, have increased. She’s been educated and entertained; had her heart broken and made whole again with hope. She began teaching as a school librarian in 1973. It has been the single best decision that She has ever made. She write posts about as many wonderful books as she can at Librarian’s Quest. You are welcome to follow her on Twitter @Loveofxena.