Steve Sanfield led an unusually meaningful and adventurous life, packed with insightful, creative work that spanned one of the more turbulent times in our history. Steve’s career also crossed many boundaries ranging from his successful career as a writer, poet and storyteller to his work as a political activist and community organizer during segregation.
His books reflect his deep interest and life-long commitment to building bridges between adversaries, who struggle over an imbalance of power. A common theme in his work, Sanfield often focused on oppressed people and how they use courage and intellect to outwit their oppressors. A theme that can be traced back to the age-old fables of another slave named Aesop. Although Sanfield was a prominent Jewish storyteller, his popular retellings of African American folktales were highly regarded and critically acclaimed. These timeless stories continue to grow in popularity and influence as they’re discovered by a new generation of young readers who delight in reading about clever tricksters and brave protagonists.
In his classic collection of slave stories, The Adventures of High John: The Conqueror, Sanfield recalls the trickster tales of a slave, High John, who he describes as a “hope-bringer” with a “will to dream.” Yet, Sanfield’s adaptation of these folktales is more than a hilarious retelling of slave stories, it also introduces young readers to this daunting period in cultural and historical context.
High John embodies the courage and perseverance many slaves adopted to survive under the watchful eyes of slave owners. His trickster tales exemplify how oppressed people have managed to employ the power of wit to survive with their dignity intact under the most difficult circumstances. High John’s clever deceptions enable him to overcome the suppression of the slave owners who never catch on to his trickster ways.
Readers learn from High John, as Sanfield explains, that oppression is a condition one lives under, yet the human spirit can endure and grow even stronger as people learn to overcome abhorrent conditions. High John bravely challenges his oppressor’s power using his brain instead of trying to rebel with brawn that could easily lead to a dangerous confrontation. Sanfield weaves excerpts into these stories to offer readers a unique historical perspective. As kids enjoy these light-hearted tales, they can also learn about an exceptionally dark period in American history.
The Adventures of High John received a number of prestigious awards including: ALA Notable Children’s Book, IRA Young Adults’ Choice, Chicago Public Library Best of the Best, and Parents’ Choice Award among others.
August House is also proud to offer another classic story from Sanfield, A Natural Man: The True Story of John Henry. Peter Thornton’s black and white, charcoal illustrations vividly capture the triumphal spirit of this cautionary tale. As a boy, John Henry soon discovers his calling as a steel-driving man, but his prowess with a hammer inevitably leads him to meet his match in a race against a steam drill.
John Henry’s legend is one of hard work and commitment to persevere against all odds. Kids of all ages will find John Henry’s story inspiring in the way he overcomes struggles through his fearless dedication to conquer any obstacle that is placed before him.
Sanfield narrates John Henry’s tale with a comfortable, familiar “storytelling tone” that achieves an even more powerful impact when the story is read aloud. A version of John Henry’s song is included at the end of the book to encourage kids to interact with this classic story.
In contrast to the imaginative details that Steve Sanfield generously sprinkles throughout the story, John Henry’s honesty allows readers to relate to his lofty character, as John Henry explains, “A man ain’t nothin’ but a man.”
Steve’s creative career reflects many of the themes echoed throughout these stories. His love of the arts started at the University of Massachusetts with his involvement in various jazz groups. His work had a lyrical quality that Leonard Cohen admired, “Sanfield writes about the small things/which stand for all things.”
After college, Sanfield became a “Freedom Rider” in Texas, risking his life to challenge immoral segregation laws and fighting for racial equality. He reflected, “It was the right thing to do, and I’m still grateful to this day for the opportunity to do it.”
In addition, Sanfield is considered one of the founders of the American Storytelling Renaissance as well as the Sierra Storytelling Festival at the North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center. He was also the first full-time Storyteller-in-Residence in the US for the state of California.
Fortunately, his work lives on through courageous characters like High John and John Henry. The exploits of these heroic characters will inspire future generations as young readers discover the universal truths embedded in these stories.
Like Aesop’s Fables, the timeless themes that Sanfield wrote about with such care and respect will continue to enlighten children as they experience the wisdom of these powerful tales.