________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 10. . . .January 9, 2009


I, Matthew Henson: Polar Explorer.

Carole Boston Weatherford. Illustrated by Eric Velasquez.
New York, NY: Walker Company (Distributed in Canada by Penguin Canada), 2008.
32 pp., hardcover, $16.95.
ISBN 978-0-8027-9688-2.

Subject Headings:
Henson, Matthew Alexander, 1866-1955-Juvenile literature.
African-American explorers-Biography-Juvenile literature.
North Pole-Discovery and exploration-Juvenile literature.

Grades 2-5 / Ages 7-10.

Review by Linda Ludke.

***1/2 /4



I did not walk forty miles
from the nation's capital
to Baltimore's busy harbor to eye
ships from a dock. Though just thirteen
I yearned for a taste of the adventures
that I had heard old sailors speak of,
to explore the seven seas
and somehow find my calling.


Told in lyrical first-person statements, this picture-book biography introduces readers to North Pole explorer Matthew Henson. As an adventure-seeking 13-year-old orphan, he worked as a cabin boy on the Katie Hines. He quickly climbed the ranks to seaman, but when his captain died, no other crew would hire him, believing "blacks were not seaworthy." While working as a stock boy in a men's store, he met a naval officer looking for a manservant for an expedition to Nicaragua. This chance meeting with Robert Peary changed Matthew's life. Together they made history in 1909 as the first to plant their flag on the North Pole.

     Each eight-line stanza conveys Henson's determination and courage. The language is passionate and poetic: "My dreams had sails." In addition to possessing tremendous survival skills, Henson was also adept at learning many languages, including Inuit. Even when facing starvation and injury, he remained resolute: "I did not sail north with Peary again and again/ through the frozen sea, charting/ the ice cap, inching toward the Pole, /where no man had stood, /for frostbite to halt our mission./ When ice took most of Peary's toes,/ I carried him back alive."

internal art      Eric Velasquez's pastel illustrations, with lots of white, gray and pale blue hues, capture the frozen landscape. They also show the racism and prejudice Hudson faced. In one powerful image, Hudson is shown in profile with his head in his hands beside a "White Only" sign.

      An author's note explores some of the controversies surrounding the Henson and Peary expeditions. Not only did someone else falsely claim to have reached the Pole earlier, but, disturbingly, "some authorities dismissed Peary's achievement because a black man had accompanied him."

      Carole Boston Weatherford's compelling narrative technique gives a sense of immediacy that immediately hooks readers. This book is a great choice for introducing an explorer unit.

Highly Recommended.

Linda Ludke is a librarian in London, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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