Hiking and Building with Henry

Book Links: June/July 2002 (v.11, no.6)

by Linda C. Joseph and Linda D. Resch

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg and
Henry Builds a Cabin by D. B. Johnson

Who is that bear wearing the straw hat, long maroon coat, and boots in
Henry Hikes to Fitchburg and
Henry Builds a Cabin? Clues are scattered throughout the text and illustrations of these two splendid picture books. In
Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, Henry and his friend meet in the town square and decide to go to Fitchburg. Henry says he will walk to Fitchburg because it is faster, while his friend says he will work until he earns enough money to buy a train ticket. They wonder who will arrive first.

Each spread in the book is a juxtaposition of Henry's and his friend's separate paths to Fitchburg. At the beginning of the journey Henry's friend fills the woodbox for Mrs. Alcott, earning 10 of the 90 cents needed for the train fare. On the opposite page Henry is carrying his clothes above his head as he hops from rock to rock across the Sudbury River. In another scene Henry's friend is seen cleaning out Mrs. Thoreau's chicken house for 10 cents, while Henry finds a bird's nest in the grass with 12 miles to go to Fitchburg. At the end of the story, Henry's friend is "sitting in the moonlight when Henry arrives. 'The train was faster,' he said. Henry took a small pail from his pack. 'I know,' he smiled. 'I stopped for blackberries.'"

Henry Builds a Cabin, Henry decides to build a cabin in the woods, and people wonder why he would move away from town. As the story unfolds, Henry is sitting under a tree, sketching out the floor plan for his 10-by-15-foot cabin. A chipmunk peers from atop his straw hat, a bird watches nearby, a toad sits in a puddle, and another chipmunk peeks from its burrow. Is Henry emulating the animals or are the animals emulating Henry as both work to build their houses? Johnson's playful images reveal much about our interactions with nature. While Henry is building, his friends from town visitnd give him lots of advice. They think his cabin should be bigger, but he has his own ideas. Emerson says, "Henry, your cabin looks too small to eat in!" Miss Lydia says, "Henry, your cabin looks too small to dance in!" Henry leads each of his guests outside and shows them why "it's bigger than it looks." These exchanges hint at Henry's finished product and how his cabin will be just right.

So who is this unforgettable bear who hikes and builds to a different drummer? Henry the bear is Henry David Thoreau, a writer, naturalist, and surveyor who lived in the mid-1800s. Both
Henry Hikes to Fitchburg and
Henry Builds a Cabin are based on passages from Walden published after Thoreau's two-year stay at Walden Pond. Johnson paints his stories with illustrations while Thoreau painted his experiences with words. The strong angles and cubist shapes in Johnson's art catch the reader's attention in both books. Facts about Concord, Walden Pond, and the individuals who lived there are layered in the images. In Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, Emerson's study, Hawthorne's garden, Alcott's kitchen, the village green, and the train station depict life in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1845. In
Henry Builds a Cabin, Emerson, Alcott, and Emerson's wife, Miss Lydia, appear as colorful characters.

Johnson is also adept at presenting the passage of time in unique ways. In
Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, Henry's friend carries a pocket watch that dangles from his side while he works his way to Fitchburg. As the day progresses the hands on the watch move, adding a whimsical dimension to the story. But even without the pocket watch, readers would still be able to note the passage of time, as the colors and hues change from page to page, reflecting the time between sunrise and sunset. In Henry Builds a Cabin, the passage of time is depicted through the cabin's building stages and the change of the seasons. In early spring Henry chops wood, as the season progresses he builds the frame, and by summer he has the shingles on the roof. On July 4, when Henry moves into his home, he brings the bed through the door on one page and into the cabin on the next. It is obvious the bed has been turned in order to move it into the cabin. This is another subtle way of illustrating time.

Johnson describes his method of telling the story as show and tell. The blend of words and pictures and the many layers in the stories bring the works of Henry David Thoreau alive. Younger readers will delight in finding and identifying the animals in the pictures, while older students may want to explore the life and times of Thoreau. More probing questions may arise, such as why did Thoreau go to Walden? What did he learn? How did he make a living?

If you know that Thoreau loved to hike, traveled with a knapsack to collect things, pressed leaves in a music book that he carried with him, used a walking stick notched to measure, and played a flute, then you can appreciate how Johnson conveys these elements of his character in the illustrations. Students enjoy discovering and gathering clues about Thoreau's interests by examining each picture. Equally appealing is the idea of creating a journal of their own as students hike and build their way through the books. One day in the future when children are asked who Henry Thoreau was, perhaps they will reply, "A bear."

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg

Discussion Questions

  • Who is the president in the picture on the post office wall?
  • How can you tell that time is passing in the book?
  • Why do you think the bookshelves in Emerson's study have handles?
  • Henry's friend does odd jobs for Mrs. Alcott, Mr. Emerson, and Mr. Hawthorne. Who were these people in real life? Who was Henry?
  • What shape are the stones in the stone wall? Why do you think the artist depicted them this way?
  • Can you find a hidden map of Scotland in the book? Why is the map in that location?
  • How long did it take Henry to hike to Fitchburg? Why did he arrive after his friend?
  • Why did Henry and his friend each decide to travel the way each did? What were the advantages and disadvantages of each way?


Invite students to keep a journal of the following activities from
Henry Hikes to Fitchburg.

  • Go to
    http://www.cyberbee.com/henryhikes/concordmaps.html to see an 1852 map of Concord. Find the locations around town that appear in the book. Draw a map of the town in your journal, marking the places where Henry's friend earns money for his train ticket.
  • Solve the following math problems: If the train to Fitchburg traveled 15 mph and the distance was 30 miles, how long was the ride for Henry's friend? If the distance from Concord to Fitchburg, Massachusetts, is 30 miles and the cost of the ticket in 1845 is 90 cents, how much did it cost per mile? If the distance from Concord to Fitchburg, Massachusetts, is 30 miles and the cost of the ticket in 2002 is $3, how much does it cost per mile? Calculate the percentage increase in the price from 1845 to today.
  • Lynne Cherry's book
    A River Ran Wild relates the history of the Nashua River, which Henry paddles on in the book. Locate the river on a map, then go to
    http://www.nashuariverwater shed.org/ to research the Nashua River Watershed project. What was the condition of the river in the 1960s? How has the river changed since then? Write a "then and now" description of the river in your journal.
  • Henry finds a bird's nest in the book. Do some bird research by visiting the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center at
    http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/ident.html. Choose three birds that live in your area and listen to their songs. Write a description of each bird and draw its picture in your journal.
  • Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne all lived in Concord and knew Henry David Thoreau. Choose one of these people and research his or her life. Write a list of interesting facts about that person in your journal.

Henry Builds a Cabin

Discussion Questions

  • Was Henry left-handed or right-handed? What clues helped you answer this question?
  • Name the animals you find in
    Henry Builds a Cabin. What are they doing in the illustrations? Is there a parallel between the blue jay and Henry? What is it?
  • What do you notice about the two scarecrows that Henry places in his garden?
  • Why do you suppose that the illustrator included a turtle in the final page of the story?,
  • One of the pictures shows Henry's journal opened to a list of items. What do these items represent?
  • How is time depicted in this story? How is the method different from that in
    Henry Hikes to Fitchburg?
  • The pond near Henry's cabin appears in several illustrations. What do you see in the pond throughout the story?
  • Why does the author show Henry carrying a flute on his "grand stairway" down to the pond?
  • What tools can you name that Henry uses in building his cabin?
  • What kind of wood does Henry use to construct his cabin? Where does he get it?
  • What time of year did Henry move into his cabin? How can you tell?


Invite students to keep a journal of the following activities from
Henry Builds a Cabin.

  • On the first page of the story, Henry is drawing plans with a pencil. What words appear on the pencil? Visit
    http://www.cyber bee.com/henryhikes/thoreau.html to learn more about Thoreau's pencils.
  • Henry itemized all of his expenses for constructing his cabin and kept a record in his journal. The total amount he spent is calculated at the end of the book. Research today's cost of materials for a replica of his cabin by using the Web or by visiting a hardware store or lumberyard. Calculate the percentage increase from 1845 to today. Remember that Henry was frugal.
  • Study the plans of Henry's cabin on the Web at
    http://www.cyberbee.com/henrybuilds/extensions.html and determine the surface area of the walls (minus the doors and windows). To find the total surface area of the inside of Henry's cabin, multiply the length times the height of each wall and add the areas of the walls together. Why might a builder of a house need to know the surface area of the walls? For a more advanced math challenge, determine the volume of the house.
  • Henry David Thoreau planted beans in his field at Walden. He suggested that on the first of June white bush beans should be planted in rows three feet by 18 inches. If possible, select fresh ground and plant a bean garden on school grounds using unmixed seeds, or grow beans in pots in the classroom. Record their growth in your journal. Water the seeds and keep them moist. If the garden is outside, keep it weeded. How long does it take before you can harvest the beans? How many different ways could you prepare them for eating? Record a bean recipe in your journal.
  • In your journal, compose a letter that Henry might have written to one of his friends about the cabin. Describe the building progress that's been made, the weather conditions, and any animals Henry might have seen.
  • In your journal, record daily observations of animals that visit your home or schoolyard. Draw accompanying pictures and include descriptions of their behavior.
  • Notice how the artist depicts rainfall in the book. How do you show rainfall in your own artwork? Draw a picture with rain using the artist's or your own technique.


Anderson, Peter.
Henry David Thoreau: American Naturalist. 1995. 64p. Watts, $22 (0-531-20206-2).

This biography of Thoreau from the First Books series includes photos, an index, and a bibliography for further reading.

Atkins, Jeannine.
Becoming Little Women: A Novel about Louisa May at Fruitlands. 2001. 176p. Putnam, $16.99 (0-399-23619-8).

Atkins imagines what life may have been like for Louisa May Alcott on her father's experimental farm, Fruitlands. Bronson Alcott is shown as a good man, but perhaps too concerned with the ideal and not sufficiently aware of the needs of family. Excerpts from Alcott's journals are woven into the text.

Cherry, Lynne.
A River Ran Wild. 1992. 32p. Harcourt/Gulliver, $16 (0-15-200542-0); Voyager, paper, $7 (0-15-216372-7).

Cherry documents the story of the Nashua River, from the time when people first came through the valley 7,000 years ago, to the river's eventual pollution by local mills, and the subsequent campaign to return it to its original state. Animals native to the area and relevant historical events are included.

Dunlap, Julie.
Louisa May and Mr. Thoreau's Flute. 2002. 32p. Dial, $16.99 (0-8037-2470-5).

As a young girl living in Concord, Massachusetts, Louisa May Alcott became acquainted with neighbor Henry David Thoreau and began to accompany him on his nature walks, which had a significant impact on her later career as a writer. Textured woodcuts convey the beauty of the woods.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo.
Father, We Thank You. Illus. by Mark Graham. 2001. 32p. North-South/SeaStar, $15.95 (1-58717-072-8).

This beautiful book for younger readers shows Emerson's passionate regard for nature and his advocacy of environmentalism. The deeply spiritual aspects of the poem are made accessible through scenes of a family hiking together.

Langton, Jane.
The Fledgling. Illus. by Erik Blegvad. 1981; reissued 2002. 224p. HarperTrophy, paper, $5.95 (0-06-440121-9).

Set at the Concord College of Transcendental Knowledge, this Newbery Honor-cited novel in Langton's Hall Family Chronicles concerns young Georgie Hall, who is convinced that she can fly, and a mysterious Canada goose that begins visiting her window on a nightly basis.

Murphy, Jim.
Into the Deep Forest with Henry David Thoreau. Illus. by Kate Kiesler. 1995. 32p. Clarion, o.p.

Following an introduction to Thoreau's life and works, this third-person narrative describes his journey with two companions to Mount Ktaadn (now Katahdin) in Maine and laces it with Thoreau's journal entries. Small, delicately shaded pencil drawings illustrate the travelers' equipment as well as plants and animals.

New Suns Will Arise: From the Journals of Henry David Thoreau. Edited by Frank Crocitto. Photos by John Dugdale. 2000. 88p. Hyperion, $24.99 (0-7868-0539-0).

In this attractive book, Dugdale's photos of natural subjects accompany selections from Thoreau's journals.

Ryden, Hope.
Wildflowers around the Year. 2001. 96p. Clarion, $17 (0-395-85814-3).

Each spread of this handsome book includes a white-bordered page featuring a clear, color photo of a plant in the wild. The facing page offers the plant's common and botanical names, its season for blooming, and other information. Also see M. A. Kelly's
A Child's Book of Wildflowers (Simon & Schuster, 1992).

Schachner, Judith Byron.
Mr. Emerson's Cook. 1998. 32p. Dutton, o.p.

Annie, an Irish immigrant, responds to an ad requesting an "extraordinary cook" for "an acclaimed poet and philosopher," who turns out to be Ralph Waldo Emerson. Loosely based on the experience of Schachner's own great-grandmother, this picture book presents an inside look at Emerson's world.

Thoreau, Henry David.
Henry David's House. Edited by Steven Schnur. Illus. by Peter Fiore. 2002. 32p. Charlesbridge, $16.95 (0-88106-116-6).

In brief passages chosen by the editor, Thoreau describes the construction of his famous cabin, lists the possessions he filled it with, and tallies the sights and sounds of the changing seasons.

Thoreau, Henry David.
Thoreau: A Book of Quotations. Edited by Bob Blaisdell. 2000. 64p. Dover, paper, $1 (0-486-41428-0).

More than 450 excerpts from Thoreau's writings are organized into 17 categories, from education to nature.

Thoreau, Henry David.
Walden; or, Life in the Woods. 1995. 216p. Dover, paper, $2 (0-486-28495-6); audiobook read by Archibald MacLeish, Harper Audio, 1 cassette (1½ hr.), $12 (0-694-52007-1).

Thoreau writes about his experiences and philosophy while living at Walden Pond. His details about building his hut and his nature and social observations contribute to a timeless masterpiece that reaches generation after generation.

Whelan, Gloria.
Fruitlands. 2002. 144p. HarperCollins, $15.99 (0-06-623815-3).

Inspired by young Louisa May Alcott's journals, this book tells of the Alcott family's experience at Fruitlands, where they moved to from Concord to escape "the imperfect world." Here, Louisa decides to keep two separate journals, one to share with her parents and the other private, offering interesting perspectives on the events of her life.

Linda C. Joseph is a library media specialist with Columbus Public Schools in Columbus, Ohio. She writes the CyberBee column for
MultiMedia Schools, and is the author of
Net Curriculum (CyberAge, 1999).
Linda D. Resch is an instructional technology specialist with Columbus Public Schools in Columbus, Ohio, and creates content for the CyberBee Web site.

Web Connections

  • At the
    Henry Hikes to Fitchburg Web site at
    http://www.henryhikes.com and the
    Henry Builds a Cabin Web site at
    http://www.henrybuilds.com, author D. B. Johnson presents information about his books, including a matching game featuring the animals in
    Henry Hikes to Fitchburg. At the
    Henry Builds a Cabin site, the author describes his illustration technique through a sequence of pictures.
  • The
    Take a Hike with Henry Activity Web site at
    http://www.cyberbee.com/henryhikes/henry.html was created by the authors of this article and provides an extensive study of the book, with interactive activities, discussion questions, links to related Web sites, and additional information about many aspects of the story.
  • The
    Henry Builds a Cabin Activity Web site at
    http://www.cyberbee.com/henrybuilds/ features in-depth activities, discussion questions, and links related to Johnson's second book about Henry. It was also created by the authors of this article.
  • The Library of Congress American Memory Collections Web site at
    http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/jul12.html features a biography of Thoreau with related Web links. Also see Ralph Waldo Emerson's page at
    http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/today/may25.html and Louisa May Alcott's page at

    Linda C. Joseph is a library media specialist with Columbus Public Schools in Columbus, Ohio. She writes the CyberBee column for
    MultiMedia Schools, and is the author of
    Net Curriculum (CyberAge, 1999).
    Linda D. Resch is an instructional technology specialist with Columbus Public Schools in Columbus, Ohio, and creates content for the CyberBee Web site.