Behind the Book: Laughing with President Lincoln
by Kathleen Krull
How’s this for an intimate detail: Friends who visit our downstairs bathroom sometimes stay in there a while. Not because of digestive problems, but because the room is. . .very interesting. The walls are lined with joke books, as well as books about bodily functions. Hundreds of books, collected by us on our travels, and also by some bathroom visitors who now scout for us.
Jokes are big in our house. My husband, Paul Brewer, writes and illustrates best-selling collections like You Must Be Joking and You Must Be Joking, Too (Cricket). Being the audience for Paul’s jokes is part of my job. We collaborated on the writing of the funniest biography ever, Fartiste (Simon & Schuster), and are always on the lookout for funny ideas.
I discovered Lincoln’s sense of humor years ago, while researching Lives of the Presidents (Harcourt). His way with words—one reason he’s considered one of our best presidents—is famous, but his way with humor isn’t. His life was so very serious. How bizarre that people called him “so funny he could make a cat laugh” and started collecting his jokes into books. Paul and I eventually hit upon this tidbit as a possible picture book, a way to make Lincoln human, an approach to pull in kids who fear, “Oh, not another boring history book about a dead guy.”
Paul made trips to the library and scoured books—some of them over 100 years old—to find the best jokes. We worried that the jokes wouldn’t be funny all these years later, and of course not all of them were, or else were too wordy or required too much explanation. So we were relieved to discover enough material to work with, and from different periods in Lincoln’s life so we could structure this as a biography.
Lincoln Tells a Joke tells the president’s life story through his love of jokes and witty remarks, from the joke books he adored as a child to the ones he kept in his desk drawer at the White House. To him a sense of humor was more than just entertainment. Jokes helped him to win people over, give orders, get along with difficult people, get out of answering questions he didn’t want to answer and fight his own depression. Finally, they helped him keep his balance as he navigated the country through its worst crisis, the Civil War, when the country threatened to split apart.
As many thousands of Lincoln books there are, few focus on his humor (the last book to do so was in 1965, long out of print). Most scholars may have found this approach too trivial, whereas we show how it was just the opposite; humor helped in the development of Lincoln’s famous writing skills, and it also helped him survive and go on to protect the country.
He’s a seriously important president, but also one of America’s first stand-up comics—controversially so. One of the things John Wilkes Booth (and many others) couldn’t stand about him was his way with jokes, which they found unseemly in a president.
Lincoln himself believed that humor should be taught in schools, that jokes were just as valuable as the 3 R’s. We hope Lincoln Tells a Joke will pull in students of presidential history as well as kids who simply like jokes.
Not to mention friends who visit our bathroom.
Kathleen Krull is well known for her innovative approach to biographies for young readers. Her recent books include Lives of the Pirates: Swashbucklers, Scoundrels (Neighbors Beware!) (Harcourt); The Brothers Kennedy: John, Robert, Edward (Simon & Schuster); The Boy Who Invented TV: The Story of Philo Farnsworth (Knopf); and more as featured at www.kathleenkrull.com. Kathleen lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, children's book writer and illustrator Paul Brewer.
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