Following Honest Abe on his journey into history
Did you notice how frequently Abraham Lincoln's image was conjured during the recent presidential election? The symmetry between the early political careers of the 16th and 44th U.S. presidents seems to have captured the imaginations of many. Adding to the fascination is an important milestone: February 12 marks the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. Children's book publishers have responded in kind, and the season brings an impressive display of new titles that chart the course of Lincoln's life in its entirety, from lighthearted looks at pivotal moments from his youth to painterly representations of his famous speeches. There are rare glimpses of Lincoln as a family man and an engrossing new spin on biography that revisits the aftermath of the president's assassination. Taken as a whole, this collection is an invaluable and multifaceted lesson in American history for young readers.
What might have been
Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale takes place "on the other side of yesterday, before computers or cars, in the year 1816" as seven-year-old Abe sets out with his good friend, Austin Gollaher, on a partridge-finding expedition down by Knob Creek. Problem is, the boys must cross the raging waters to get close enough to the birds. This proves to be a nearly impossible task, but determined to brave the danger, Abe shows his mettle. The results are nearly disastrous and if Austin wasn't close by—well, let's just say that the course of American history might have been drastically altered. Author Deborah Hopkinson (a BookPage contributor) and illustrator John Hendrix have created a delightful, folksy tale that depicts Lincoln before political aspiration took root. Clever intervention from the storytellers provides a playful yet profound "what if" factor. The final pages depict President Lincoln wistfully remembering his childhood friend while Hopkinson provides the following wisdom: "Let's remember Austin Gollaher, who, one day long ago, when no one else was there to see, saved Abe Lincoln's life. And without Abraham Lincoln, where would we be?"
United by a cause
From Nikki Giovanni and illustrator Bryan Collier, the acclaimed duo that brought us Rosa (winner of the Coretta Scott King Award and a Caldecott Honor book), comes Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship. Here readers are treated to a glimpse of Lincoln in his formative years through the stirring combination of Giovanni's prose and Collier's celebrated collage depictions. This time, we're shown the ethical parallels between the future president and his longtime ally, Frederick Douglass. When Lincoln was a newly elected congressman, Douglass paid him a visit, and "A friendship flowered based on mutual values, a love of good food, and the ability to laugh even in the worst of times." Adamantly principled on the topic of slavery, both men devoted their public lives to the cause of abolition. The Civil War cast a pall over the festivities that accompanied Lincoln's inauguration as president, but there was one guest that Lincoln insisted on seeing at the White House that evening, despite the rules that prohibited Negroes from entering. When Douglass finally arrives, the men gaze over the balcony and renew their shared commitment to freedom for all people.
A new birth of freedom
Two new books exemplify Lincoln's impact by incorporating his own words into the narrative. In What Lincoln Said, author Sarah L. Thomson uses direct quotes from pivotal moments in Honest Abe's life. Illustrator James E. Ransome presents a more jovial, less stern depiction than we're accustomed to seeing. The story ends with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Day in 1863 as Lincoln humbly states, "If ever my name goes into history, it will be for this act . . . and my whole soul is in it."
Destined to be a classic, Abe's Honest Words by Doreen Rappaport (author of the Caldecott Honor book, Martin's Big Words), features divine, luminous illustrations by Kadir Nelson (known best for Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, also a Caldecott Honor book and Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner). Rappaport's own prose is coupled with Lincoln's thoughts on the importance of reading and education, the horrors of slavery, the challenges of being a young and unknown politician, and, of course, the iconic speech delivered on a Gettysburg battlefield.
Beloved author Rosemary Wells shines a light on a personal dimension of Lincoln's life in Lincoln and His Boys. This is history as seen through the eyes of his young sons, Willie and Tad, who, after Lincoln is elected president, accompany him on the 12-day train ride (unfathomable to us now) from Illinois to Washington, D.C. They gleefully interrupt cabinet meetings and pray with their parents to heal the soldiers as the war escalates. The boys persistently ask questions of their adoring "Papa-day," trying to make sense of events as they unfold. Illustrations by P.J. Lynch are warm and vivid, capturing the genuine bond between a famous father and his sons.
The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary takes readers ever deeper into the lives of Lincoln, his family and his country. Author Candace Fleming has painstakingly compiled rare photographs (including the only known photo of Abraham with both Willie and Tad), insights into the Lincolns' marriage, accounts of White House mischief by their sons, biographical information about the president's cabinet, humorous anecdotes about stovepipe hats and three tales about Mary that you won't want to miss. This is the type of book that will invite readers to examine and re-examine its pages. Each time they do, they'll be rewarded with more captivating details.
Extra, extra: A special edition tells Lincoln's story
Books about Abraham Lincoln are plentiful this year, but one of the most impressive tributes comes in the form of Lincoln Shot: A President's Life Remembered by Barry Denenberg, featuring enthralling artwork by Christopher Bing. The format is eye-catching: a special edition of a newspaper, dated April 14, 1866, marking the one-year anniversary of Lincoln's death. From the very first page, readers get the sense that they're examining privileged archival documents. The headline reads "President Dies at 7:22, Nation Mourns Fallen Leader." The search for assassin John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators is recounted. After the villains' apprehension and execution, all told with riveting specifics, the paper turns to Lincoln's life, from boyhood hardships in the Indiana wilderness, to spelling bee triumphs, through his early career as a lawyer and romance at age 30 with a charming socialite named Mary Todd. Lincoln's entire political career is offered for inspection and the Civil War is fascinatingly detailed. In fact, though the book is only 40 pages long, there's hardly a moment of Lincoln's life that's missed. With its mimicry of a 19th-century newspaper, complete with archival photography, authentic typesetting and period advertisements, this type of alternative biography is sure to capture the imagination of both ready and reluctant readers. When the story ends with Lincoln's assassination, only five days after the Union victory, we come away with new perspectives on a most famous historical figure and the era he represented, all derived from the unique learning experience that this book provides.
Ellen Trachtenberg is the author of The Best Children's Literature: A Parent's Guide.