Henry and the Cannons is a new picture book I had thought would be released this month, but evidently it was released back in January. I might be a bit slow here; in the hyper-fast, zippy-quick world of publishing, this is hardly breaking news. But I still choose to shine the spotlight on it today, as it’s an excellent piece of nonfiction.
Since it comes from author/illustrator Don Brown, I’m not surprised. He’s brought readers over 20 well-crafted picture books, many of them biographies of lesser-known figures, those who have followed their bliss and lived with passion. I’ve enjoyed his books over the years, as both a librarian and parent, and I like his delicate and quirky soft-focused pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations, full of subtle humor and energy and an understated eloquence.
But his illustrations, in particular, seem better than ever in this new book. Richer in color, more precise in line: It’s his usual standard of excellence but bumped up a notch, it seems.
The book, sub-titled An Extraordinary True Story of the American Revolution, tells the dramatic events of 1775 when bookseller Henry Knox, at winter’s peak in Boston, set out toward Fort Ticonderoga to bring cannons back to the city. The American Revolution had begun, and General George Washington felt hopeless to defend Boston against the British Army, who held the city fast. “Washington ached for cannons,” Brown writes.
Knox possessed a “plump shape that suggested a man who preferred a good meal to a good fight,” but he read about soldiering in the books he sold in his own shop, and he determined that he could succeed in the endeavor. Washington then ordered him to go. Starting out “would be the easiest part of his adventure,” though 40 miles a day for a week on horseback sounds pretty challenging.
This is understandable, given that he retrieved 59 cannons, which totaled 120,000 pounds. After dragging boats to Lake George, Knox and his men set out with the cannons over the cold waters, having to overcome fatigue and a setback involving a giant rock in the water. They braved heavy winds, a sinking boat (which they eventually recovered) and snow drifts. They loaded the cannons onto sleds for hauling back to Boston via oxen and horses, and during one trip across a frozen river, some of the cannons crashed through the ice. Since Knox was determined to secure every cannon, his men rescued it.
When Brown reaches the point in the story during which Knox and his men, finally in Boston with all the cannons, fires “a big gun and thrilled everyone,” readers will likely cheer along with this tenacious, unassuming man. This goes far in delivering “a nasty surprise for the British. Seeing the big guns pointing down at them, the 9,000 British soldiers fled the city by boat. They left behind 250 of their own cannons.”
And the Americans win back Boston.
As usual, Brown delivers unfussy spreads with relaxed (yes, as mentioned earlier, precise) lines, occasionally using panels to break up the action. In one striking spread, depicting Knox setting off on his horse to retrieve the cannons, Brown divides this one man-on-horse spread into three panels: The first, showing the horse’s back side, includes no precipitation; the second, depicting Knox in the horse’s saddle, shows rain; and the third, which includes only the horse’s head, depicts heavy snow. With this one static image, he propels the story forward with economy and tension.
And, speaking of economy, Brown writes in a direct manner, never condescending to the child reader, but managing to capture with precision the story’s mood and atmosphere: “[The boats] had to be rowed hard for hours. Muscles and breath burned. Wind-drive waves washed over the boats, sinking one. Wet and cold, Henry’s troop re-floated it.”
A compelling piece of nonfiction for readers of all ages.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.HENRY AND THE CANNONS: AN EXTRAORDINARY TRUE STORY OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. Copyright © 2013 by Don Brown. Published by Roaring Brook Press, New York. Spread used with permission of Don Brown.