Some Explaining To Do – What A Book’s About

Over the past several years, between my one morning a week as a volunteer literacy tutor (I work with third graders), my grandparental , and other stuff, I’ve gotten to read (or have read to me) a fair number and range of books for three-to-ten year olds, ranging from way old (classic or just plain old) to fairly recent.

And I’ve come to conclusion that, aside from other issues outside this post’s topic, a lot of them — particularly many of the new ones — haven’t done their job well enough in being accessible to their audience… often, where a sentence or two, even a few words, would have made a big difference.

(For what it’s worth, I feel that way about some of the non-kid books I read, too. For example, Michael Chabon’s excellent THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION.)

For example, this week, one of my tutees brought (they usually decide what book they want to read) a book about John Henry, who competed against a (steam-powered) machine. The book was short, with a picture on each, and written around 2002, with a note in the front about “tall tales,” and saying when and where the incident the story probably sprang from was thought to be.

All well and good.


Within the first page or two, while John Henry is still a baby, the phrase “steel-driving man” is used. With no explanation of “steel-driving,” nor how that relates to the hammer that the young John Henry is already playing with.

A few pages in, John Henry (and his wife) are relocating to West Virginia, where they encounter a railroad being built, including a major project through a tunnel. JH gets a job here — but still with no mention of specifically what he’s doing, nor how his hammer and “steel-driving” are involved. And then along comes a “steam drill.” No explanation of what it is, nor how it relates to “steel-driving.” So when John Henry and the machine compete, it’s hardly obvious what that means.

Particularly since I’ve heard folk songs about John Henry (done by Pete Seeger, and, no doubt, others) I could make an educated guess what “steel-driving,” combined with there being a heavy hammer, might mean, and also what a “steam drill” might be doing that was similar.

But I don’t see how an author would expect the average young reader to have the foggiest notion of what was going on.

This could have been handled in a few phrases or sentences.

The omission not only robs the story of most of its meaning.

This, I fear, makes for a less satisfactory reading experience — being able to read the words isn’t the same as understanding what’s going on and having that sense. Instead, some readers, I’m sure, will feel frustrated… and therefore unnecessarily discouraged from continuing to work on becoming better readers, or from reading for enjoyment.


(Note, a quick Google, of course, sheds some light on these questions. Which of the explanations is more “accurate” I couldn’t begin to guess… but the hits provide some basic sense of what’s going on:

  • What is a Steel Drivin’ Man?, By Dan Shaver — “A steel driver worked with a partner. The partner held in place a steel shaft with a cutting head that the “driver,” often working from awkward angles, forced into the native stone with repeated strikes of his hammer.”
  • Wikipedia — “In modern depictions John Henry is often portrayed as hammering down rail spikes, but older versions depict him driving blasting holes into rock, part of the process of excavating railroad tunnels and cuttings.”

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