Talking with D. B. Johnson

by Edward T. Sullivan

Author and illustrator D. B. Johnson has succeeded more than anyone else in bringing Thoreau’s actions and ideas to life for young readers.
Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, winner of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award and recipient of numerous other accolades, was the first of four books introducing readers to bits of Thoreau’s philosophy and biography. In
Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, a story drawn from Walden, Henry and a friend decide to meet in Fitchburg

30 miles away. The friend decides to work for train fare to Fitchburg while Henry chooses to walk the whole 30 miles.

Both arrive at Fitchburg at the same time, but Henry clearly has had the more pleasant and enlightening journey.

Also drawn from
Walden is
Henry Builds a Cabin, in which Henry himself builds the small, simple cabin beside Walden Pond, where he lived for two years.
Henry Climbs a Mountain is based upon the time when Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay taxes, a protest against a government that sanctioned slavery. From that experience, Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience,” an essay that influenced such leaders of freedom movements as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Johnson’s most recent book,
Henry Works, shows readers how life’s most important work is not something one does for pay. I wanted to hear from Johnson himself about how he was first introduced to Thoreau and came to create these picture books.

ETS: At what age were you introduced to Thoreau’s writings?

JOHNSON: I was probably 15 or 16. I don’t actually remember. I do have a copy of
Walden that I gave to my father

for Christmas when I was 17, so it’s likely I had read it enough by then to know he’d enjoy it too.

ETS: What made you decide to introduce Thoreau’s ideas and life to young readers?

JOHNSON: I remembered how much I loved reading about his life in the woods when I was a kid, and I thought children even younger than I was would appreciate what he wrote. What has always impressed me about Thoreau’s ideas is that they are so strange and paradoxical, even funny: that walking could be the fastest way to travel, that

you can lose and still win, that even the smallest house includes everything outside it and can be the biggest, that you could give up your freedom (go to jail) to get more freedom, that the best work can seem like play. These are just the kind of ideas that kids are still open to and can have fun with. What seems at first to be a crazy and naïve idea turns out to have a great amount of truth!

ETS: Why did you choose to make Henry a bear?

JOHNSON: I wanted these stories to focus on Thoreau’s ideas and not the man. And I wanted a character kids would love. I had originally planned to write the story with a young man. Then I read two descriptions of Henry by people who knew him personally. Franklin Sanborn described him as a “philosophical woodchuck” and wrote about his weather-beaten face that reminded him of “some shrewd and honest animal’s.” So I knew I had a strong basis for making him an animal. I also knew that Henry spent as much as eight hours a day roaming the woods, and that he laimed to be able to easily walk 30 miles in a day. I made Henry a bear because they roam more freely and widely than most other animals in New England. I like to imagine that Thoreau himself may have secretly wished to have the free life of a bear.

ETS: The illustrations in
Henry Works are different from those in the other books. Can you say something about


JOHNSON: It was just a personal choice that I made. I had only intended to do three Henry books. The fourth book is a kind of summing up of all the other books. He begins his walk to work at the cabin he built. He meets many people along the way and does some good deed for each one. He climbs Fair Haven Hill and checks out the weather.

He eats huckleberries and shares the location of the bush with everyone by marking its location. In all these ways,
Henry Works reflects back on the ideas in the first three books. AND we find out why Henry does all these things: he

is a writer!
Henry Works is a special book in that way, so I thought it should look different also. I made it taller and did one large illustration on each spread, with a small black-and-white illustration to highlight the text.

ETS: Did you set out writing
Henry Hikes to Fitchburg as the first of a series of books, or did the ideas for the other

books come later?

JOHNSON: I had the idea for
Henry Hikes to Fitchburg first. I knew that I wanted to write about the major events and ideas in Thoreau’s life, so the cabin on Walden Pond, the climb up a mountain, and the night spent in jail were

on my mind from the beginning. But I didn’t have those stories until later.

ETS: What do you hope children will get out of reading the Henry books?

JOHNSON: I hope kids will understand that they don’t have to follow the crowd. They can get to Fitchburg without needing any money. They can “lose” and still “win.” They don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy. That nature is a vitally important part of their world, and maybe they should water the milkweed in dry season. I work hard at making the plants, animals, and birds in my books easily identifiable. But mostly I hope kids find my stories interesting and fun to read.

ETS: Do you have other stories in mind for Henry? If so, can you tell us a little about them?

JOHNSON: I’m giving Henry a little vacation in order to write about other characters I’ve been thinking about. My next book is called
Eddie’s Kingdom and will be published later this year. I do have other Henry stories to write, so

kids will be hearing about Henry again in a couple of years.

Edward T. Sullivan is the library media specialist for Hardin Valley Elementary School in Knoxville, Tennessee.