Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea

Written by Tony Johnston, Illustrated by Stacy Innerst Harcourt Children’s Books, 2011

“Gold!” somebody yelled. Next thing anybody knew, the whole world rushed to California and started digging up the place.

The plot in a nutshell: A man invents a new kind of pants.

Back in the days of the Gold Rush, pants were not well made and had a tendency to fall apart when put to hard use. As a results, most miners wound up in their underwear or completely naked when digging and panning for gold. Some wound up buying barrels to cover their parts. Bits of pants that had fallen apart blocked the rivers and made panning difficult. One day, a man named Levi Strauss came to California and although he was too late to get in on the Gold Rush, he came up with an idea to make pants that were sturdy enough to stand up to hard use. While he worked on his plan, he made tents from denim to protect the men from the elements. One day, he realized the tents were the answer and he made a pair of pants from his own tent. When the miners saw how indestructible the new pants were, they all wanted some. So Levi Strauss sent for his brothers to help and they sewed a pair for every man (and a backup pair when all the worn-every-day pants start to smell). Then he took the now unused barrels and built San Francisco with them.

Author Tony Johnston gives us a modern tall tale which, like many of the tall tales that came before it, takes a nugget of truth and spins a big web of fiction over it. Fortunately, he includes a note in the back that gives us some real details around the creation of blue jeans and Levi Strauss’ experiences during the Gold Rush years in the 1800’s. It’s all interesting stuff, too, that is especially fun to read after indulging in the more fanciful version he shares here. The story itself is a little on the silly side, but that’s consistent with tall tales as well and I believe kids will recognize the humorous nature of the story for what it is.

“Does this barrel make me look fat?”

The artwork for this book really kicks it up a notch, because the illustrations were done with acrylic paint on actual blue jeans. Stacy Innerst makes clever use of seams and texture in her artwork and uses the natural denim blue as the color for her sky and water.  I enjoyed the story quite a bit and really appreciated the opportunity to learn more about the actual man. For many kids, brand names are just names and books like this help them to realize that there are people behind those successful companies, which may inspire them to follow their own dreams to creating brands of their own someday.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that there aren’t many problems that can’t be solved by good creative thinkers who are willing to do a little work.

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