Henry David Thoreau is a bear in Henry Climbs a Mountain by D.B. Johnson. This picture book has very abstract illustrations. If you’ve ever read either of Johnson’s companion books to this one, Henry Builds a Cabin and Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, then you know what I mean by “abstract”! Some kids have asked me as I read aloud Henry Builds a Cabin where the cabin is in the pictures. I tell them that it’s there alright; they just need to look at the pictures closely and think in a different way about what a cabin looks like.
I spent some time looking at each picture in Henry Climbs a Mountain in detail. There are all kinds of small animals and birds there that you could easily overlook just because the illustrations are so busy. A rabbit, a porcupine, some chickadees, a chipmunk, and more. For many of the illustrations, your eye doesn’t immediately focus on a main subject like it does with many other picture books. Henry the bear is always there somewhere, but trees or birds or plants often grab your eye just as easily as Henry. Sometimes it seems like each picture is covered by a sheet of glass that is splintered into many pieces–and each piece catches the light in a different way; each picture is like a surface of shade splinters.
Henry Climbs a Mountain tells the true story (except that Henry is a bear in the book) of how Henry David Thoreau spent a night in the Concord Jail in July, 1846. Thoreau lived in Concord, Massachusetts. He went to jail because he hadn’t paid his poll taxes for 6 years. Back then, you had to pay a tax to the government before you voted–this was called a poll tax. Why didn’t he pay his poll taxes? He didn’t want to pay taxes to support the United States federal government. In 1846, slavery was legal. Thoreau didn’t want to pay taxes to support a government that allowed slavery to continue. So he was arrested by tax collector Sam Staples and went to sit in the Concord jail for a night. In the morning, his aunt paid his poll taxes and he was let out of jail.
All of the above is true and really happened. But in this book, D.B. Johnson imagines that Henry climbs a mountain while he is in jail. Henry the bear draws a picture of a mountain on the wall of his jail cell, then steps into the picture and climbs it. The mountain in his drawing is very real; it has a hummingbird, a hawk, a river to get his feet wet in, and a waterfall. On the mountain, he meets another bear, a “traveler”, with ragged clothes and no shoes. The two bears become friends as they talk and sing songs on the mountaintop. We know that this “traveler” bear is a runaway slave because he says he is following the North star. Henry gives the “traveler” his shoes and walks down the mountain barefooted as morning approaches.
After getting out of Concord jail, Henry David Thoreau returned to the cabin he had built in the woods outside of town next to Walden Pond. He had been living there for about a year before going to jail. That is where he wrote his most famous book called Walden.
In the book, Henry is preparing to climb a mountain before the tax collector stops him. Was the real Thoreau preparing to climb a mountain when he encountered Sam Staples? Maybe… The night he spent in jail was either July 24 or 25, 1846. Only a month later, on August 31, Thoreau left Concord on a train headed for Bangor, Maine. From there, he made his way by stagecoach and boat to Mt. Katahdin, Maine’s highest mountain. Thoreau wrote an essay about his trip to Mt. Katahdin called Ktaadn. The mountain that Henry the bear drew on his wall looks quite a lot like Mt. Katahdin with the alpine area at the top and the spruce and balsam trees lining its sides.
What did Thoreau’s real jail cell look like? I wrote to a librarian in Concord to ask if she knew this. She sent me a passage from a book by Walter Harding called The Days of Henry Thoreau. It says that his cell was 26 feet long and 8.5 feet high. It had two “double-grated” windows. What is a grated window anyway? I’m not exactly sure, but I it definitely has something to do with bars covering the window opening, just like the old-fashioned jail windows you may have seen. Another prisoner, a cell-mate, was in Thoreau’s jail cell with him. Thoreau was very curious about the jail and wanted to learn all about the history of the jail, who all of prisoners were, and why they were there. He talked with his cell-mate about these things but must have talked too long, because his cell-mate became tired and went to sleep.
If you’d like to read more about Henry David Thoreau, ask your librarian to help you find some books about him. He is one of my favorite people from history to read about. Or you could take a look at the websites below.