Onward: A Photobiography of African-American Polar Explorer Matthew Henson

Johnson, Dolores. Onward: A Photobiography of African-American Polar Explorer Matthew Henson. 2006. 64pp. Lexile 1070.

Although African-Americans had no chance to lead major explorations in the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, Matthew Henson was one of the first, and possibly the very first, Americans to reach the North Pole.  The son of sharecroppers, Henson went to see at age thirteen, where the ship's captain schooled him in reading, writing, geography, history, and navigation.  When he was 21, Henson was hired by naval officer Robert Peary to accompany him, at first as a manservant, on a government mission to Nicaragua and then to Greenland, where Peary first began to reach the North Pole.  Smooth writing and fascinating historical photographs tell of their multiple attempts to reach the Pole, often living with Inuits during the expeditions.  Henson, who learned the Inuit language and survival techniques, became instrumental in the expeditions including the final successful one.  But as a black man, he was given very little pay and only honored late in his life.  This photobiography fits into studies of explorers and of black history but also lends itself to independent reading.  Timeline, bibliography, index.

Reading Std #2: Determine central ideas or themes and analyze their development; summarize key supporting details and ideas.  One of the central themes in this book is that of racial prejudice.  Have students compare the contributions of Matthew Henson and Robert Peary to the expeditions, and their much different rewards for their work, in exploring this theme.