Finalist for the ALA's 2008 Best Books for Young Adults Award

Named by Book Links as one of the "Best New Books for the Classroom" in 2008

Starred Review in Booklist

Starred Review in School Library Journal


"Ain't Nothing but a Man" is the tale of a detective chasing the ultimate cold case - a missing person who may or may not be fictional - and it's so engaging, so full of the thrill of the hunt, that it feels mean to dampen the book's pleasures even a little by telling you right away what, or rather who, Nelson found...Not since that scene in "All the President's Men," with Woodward and Bernstein sifting through mountains of checkout slips in the Library of Congress, has the tedium of a paper chase been made to seem so cool." -- Lawrence Downes, New York Times Book Review

"In this fascinating book, Scott Reynolds Nelson tells readers how, as a child, he first became interested in unraveling the stories behind historical artifacts and determining the difference between fact and fiction. Nelson...takes the reader through the years of research detailing how he followed the threads of obscure clues until he came to the conclusion that Henry was indeed a real man. Along the way, readers are treated to fascinating facts about the building of America's railroads and about the men who built them." -- Anne M. G. Gray, Library Media Collection

"Not many history books are written in first person, but this is no ordinary history book. It traces a historian’s quest for the man behind the legend of John Henry. Nelson’s research involved listening to hundreds of variants of the song “John Henry,” learning about post-Civil War railway construction projects, visiting possible sites for the legendary contest between man and steam drill, and in one groundbreaking moment, glancing at the 1910 postcard on his desktop, hearing the lyrics of a version of “John Henry” in his mind, and making a connection that no other modern historian had considered."-- Carolyn Phelan, Booklist (starred review)

This book is as much about a historian’s quest for the truth as it is a biography of the well-known strong man. Nelson chronicles how he began to learn about African-American workers on the railroad in the South.... Noting how dead ends occur during research, the author explains how he overcame roadblocks and took his search in other excellent example of how much detective work is needed for original research."-- Blair Christolon, School Library Journal (starred review)

"Nelson models the study of history as an active and passionate pursuit as he shows readers how he pieced together a panoply of facts and anecdotes to find the real-life subject of the folk song "John Henry.""-- Publisher's Weekly

"African-American railroad builders sang about John Henry, the “steel-driving man,” but no one had ever verified that he was a real person. Historian Nelson set out to find the answer, describing the trail he followed from clues in song lyrics, and what he uncovered is as fascinating as the legend." -- Curriculum Connections

"With assistance from Aronson, a veteran author/editor and nabob of nonfiction, Nelson....suspensefully retraces his search for the man behind the ballad.... Supported by a generous array of late-19th- and early-20th-century photos—mostly of chain-gang "trackliners" and other rail workers—the narrative pieces together clues from song lyrics, an old postcard, scattered business records and other sources, arriving finally at both a photo that just might be the man himself, and strong evidence of the drilling contest's actual location." -- Kirkus Reviews

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