Onward – Photobiography of African-American Explorer Matthew Henson

January 13, 2010 at 5:51 pm 2 comments

Onward – Photobiography of African-American Explorer Matthew Henson
Written by Dolores Johnson
Publisher: National Geographic, 2006
Recommended Grades: 5th to 8th
64 pages, 10,914 words

Jason’s Review

Onward is a book about Matthew Henson, the first African-American to reach the North Pole.

Matthew Henson was born on August 8, 1866, in Charles County, Maryland. When Matthew was seven years old, his mother died. His father remarried. Six years later his father got killed in a farming accident, leaving Matthew all on his own.

Now let’s stop right there. He’s only 13 years old. He lost his mother AND father. He must have felt horrible. Think about it. Stick yourself in his shoes. I would feel horrible and miserable without my mom and dad.

Anyway, he found a job, and soon became a sailor, going to many places around the world. Eventually, he was assigned to go on an expedition with Robert Peary to reach the North Pole. No one over the past four centuries has been able to reach the North Pole and they wanted to be the first.

They attempted the 1st expedition, but failed. They raised money to set out on another expedition in a 2nd attempt to reach the North Pole. They would sail up to Northern Greenland and then travel by dog sleds to the North Pole.

I can connect this book to Freedom Riders because both books are about important African-Americans. Matthew Henson was even alive during the Civil Rights Movement and his achievement is very important to all African-Americans.

I’d like to tell you more and if Peary and Henson reached the North Pole or not, but I’ll leave that up to you to go get Onward. Hope you enjoy it!

Jenny’s Review

Dolores Johnson writes mysteries for adults as well as fiction and nonfiction books for children. Her books for children generally focus on social injustice themes and have African-Americans as the main characters. Coincidentally, Jason’s 5th grade teacher read one of Ms. Johnson’s fiction books to his class titled “Now Let Me Fly: The Story of a Slave Family”.

Onward is the story of Matthew Henson, the first African-American to journey to the North Pole. The book begins with a Foreword written by Matthew Henson’s great-great-great niece named Leila Savoy Andrade who grew up listening to stories about him. The book then takes a chronological look of Henson’s life.
Henson was born at the end of the Civil War. A time when our nation was in turmoil. By the time he was 13-years-old, Henson was an orphan.

Like most people in the late 19th century, he needed to find employment. Henson found a job as a cabin boy on a steamship. The captain took him under his protective wings and taught Henson how to read and write. Three years later, tragedy struck and the captain died, leaving Henson alone once again. But Henson wasn’t afraid of hard work and it didn’t take him long to find work on other ships. This was one determined man.

The authentic photographs make Henson’s life come alive! I got goose bumps looking at the photos of huge crevasses (large holes or gaps in the ice) that some crews almost fell in! And the way Ms. Johnson describes how Henson survived after plunging into frigid water, made me shiver.

Henson got his itch for adventure after accepting a job as a manservant for Lt. Peary, a naval officer. But Henson’s first assignment wasn’t to the freezing Arctic–it was to the tropics in Nicaragua. Lt. Peary made it his life mission to be the first man to stand at the North Pole, and he wanted Henson along with him. Henson proved he was invaluable to Peary’s mission by making friends with the Inuit (Eskimos). Ms. Johnson sums up the relationship between Henson and the Eskimos as follows:

“The Inuit saw a brother in Matthew Henson not only because of his skin color but because he, of all those in the expedition, chose to learn their language and their way of life. They shared their survival skills with him, and he, in turn, taught Peary and the rest of the crew.”

It makes me wonder if Peary could have achieved his life goal without Henson. Ms. Johnson’s lively and engaging text will keep you reading to find out if Henson reaches the North Pole. The back matter includes a touching Afterward written by the author, a timeline of Henson’s life, and a bibliography. I highly recommend Onward to children and teachers.

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Entry filed under: Book Reviews, Nonfiction Books, Uncategorized.

Freedom Riders – Story of the Civil Rights Movement The Great and Only Barnum

2 Comments

  • 1. Judy Gamble  |  January 27, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    Hey Jason, I’m in an online writer’s group with your mom and I really like the idea behind this blog! I read your review of Onward and I just loved your third paragraph, especially the way it began! I also like how you ended this one, as you’ve done with the others, by leaving the reader hanging–you’re not going to “give away” the ending. Good for you!

    Keep up the good work!

  • 2. jennylbailey  |  January 28, 2010 at 7:30 am

    Thank you, Judy. I really like your comment: “one of the best ones”. I certainly worked hard on the 3rd paragraph.


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George Washington Carver by Tonya Bolden, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2008.

Our Abe Lincoln by Jim Aylesworth, Scholastic, 2009

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