This is a remarkable story about an equally remarkable man and this enjoyable retelling ensures that his story will reach the wider audience it deserves.
Eleven year old orphan Matthew runs away from his violent stepmother to try to find a new life in Washington city and is taken in by a kindly woman to help in her cafe. Sleeping on the floor beneath the counter at night and sweeping the floors and running errands during the day Matthew earns his keep but always dreams that life holds something more for him. However, from this inauspicious start no one would ever have imagined that he would become the first man to reach the North Pole. Through hard work and determination Matthew becomes a sailor, navigator and craftsman and ultimately an explorer and right hand man to Commander Robert E Peary on his expedition to the Arctic.
The explorers I learned about at school included names such as Scott, Columbus and Amundsen and in recent years new children’s books about Shackleton, Hillary and Armstrong have been added to the school library shelves. Yet, to my shame, I had never heard of Matthew Henson. Catherine Johnson, in her introduction to this book published by Barrington Stoke, explains why this is the case. Although he was the first man to reach the North Pole his story was suppressed for decades because of the colour of his skin.
I read this story with mounting admiration for Matthew and anger at the way he was treated. In addition to being a wonderful, gripping and exciting adventure his story is one that will prompt discussion with young readers on a variety of important themes. These include prejudice and discrimination and resilience and determination. Matthew goes to sea at a very young age, as was common at the time, and learns much from a kindly sea captain who acts as a mentor and father figure. Without the input of this man would Matthew’s story have turned out as it did? The kindness of strangers is an interesting aspect of the book and there is a little bit of luck too but the overriding impression is that Matthew works hard and rises to any challenge he faces and it is this that enables him to succeed eventually.
The descriptions of the expedition in the Arctic are enthralling. The bravery of these men and their ability to endure the hardships they faced in order to achieve their aim is astonishing. The friendships made between Matthew and the Inuits who helped and joined the trip to the North Pole and the lasting, shared memories of this were a touching part of the story too.
It is Black History Month in October and this excellent children’s book is a must to add to any list of titles to mark this occasion. I enjoyed ‘meeting’ Matthew Henson very much, a remarkable man and would like to thank Catherine Johnson for the introduction.
Like all of Barrington Stoke’s books this story is presented in an accessible way suitable for emergent, reluctant and dyslexic readers. However this is also an extremely worthwhile quick read for older and more confident readers too. Last but definitely not least I loved the cover by Katie Hickey.
Like all good historical fiction this wonderful story left me wanting to find out more. There is an interesting interview with Catherine Johnson on Grace Latter’s blog which answers my questions. This National Geographic article provides more background information too.
Thank you to Barrington Stoke for sending me this review copy.