Henry Climbs a Mountain

Henry Climbs a Mountain, by D.B. Johnson

henry climbs mountain coverThis is a story of Henry David Thoreau and of slavery.  It is a story of hope and freedom.  In this picture book, D.B. Johnson portrays Henry David Thoreau (and other characters) as a bear.

On a trip to town to get a shoe that was being repaired, Henry is stopped by the tax collector and jailed for not paying his taxes.


“Pay a state that lets farmers own slaves?  Never!” said Henry.

Henry stares at the walls and ceiling of the jail cell, then begins to draw a different world.  He draws his shoe, a flower, and a hummingbird….then a tree, a path, and a river.  Henry steps into the picture, getting his feet wet in the river, and continues drawing his way up a mountain.  As Henry climbs and draws, he sings: “The bear goes over the mountain…..to see what he can see.”

When Henry reaches the top of the mountain, he meets a traveler coming up the other side.  This bear is singing:  “The other side of the mountain…will set me free at last.”  This bear is wearing patched clothing, and a metal band (he has escaped) on one leg.

Henry and the other bear talk and sing on top of the mountain.  When Henry learns that the other bear has a long way to walk (“As far as the star in the North”) and has no shoes, Henry gives the other bear his own shoes.

The bear heads off to the North.  Henry heads back down the mountain without his shoes.

This is a good book for introducing the concepts of slavery and the underground railroad.  When I read this with my young children, they noticed the escaped bear’s metal band and asked many questions about slavery.  This can be a starting point for discussions with older children as well – about slavery, ethics, civil disobedience, and perhaps even about the ways groups of people influence government.

There is a page of biographical information about Thoreau at the end of this picture book.

Thoreau is known for his time spent in the woods near Concord, MA – and his book, Walden.  Thoreau also wrote Civil Disobedience – and his ideas influenced people all over the world including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.  Thoreau went to jail for not paying his taxes – in protest to a government that let people own slaves.  Thoreau was an abolitionist and helped slaves escape to freedom.  Thoreau died in May 1862.  Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863.

Bear’s Picture

Bear’s Picture by Daniel Pinkwater, illustrated by D.B. Johnson

Bears-pictureA bear wanted to paint a picture.  He got paper and paints – and starting painting.  He added colors as he felt he needed them.  He happily added orange, blue, and a rainbow he saw.

Two gentlemen out walking saw the bear.

“Bears can’t paint pictures,” said the second fine, proper gentleman.



“Why not?  Why can’t a bear do anything he likes?” asked the bear.

The “fine, proper gentlemen” continued to argue that it was a silly painting and they couldn’t tell what it is supposed to be.  They bear continued painting.

The “fine, proper gentlemen” asked the bear if it was a painting of a butterfly or a clown – because it looked a little like one of those.  The bear told them what he was painting – a honey tree, a forest stream, a hollow log, and a field of flowers.

The “fine, proper gentlemen” said it didn’t look like those thing to them.

“It doesn’t have to,” said the bear.  “It is MY picture.”

The “fine, proper gentlemen” walked away saying that bears shouldn’t paint pictures.  And the bear “looked at his picture…and was happy.”

D.B. Johnson’s illustrations play beautifully with Daniel Pinkwater’s text.  Early in the story, the bear is shown in grayish brown tones, with a little blue in his eyes.  The “fine, proper gentlemen” are in grayish brown tones too.  As the story progresses, the bear adds more colors and images to his painting, and the scarf he is wearing becomes spotted with colorful paint.  The gentlemen remain grayish brown.  The bear’s finished painting is full of colors – and, when turned upside down, looks like a picture of the bear.

A bear, some stuffy gentlemen, paint, and self-expression (never mind what critics say) make for a great book to share with children.