Review by DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Lincoln scholar, author and broadcaster
How important can a children’s book about a president be? Ask Abraham Lincoln.
Short of asking the sixteenth president, history speaks for Lincoln and tells us that Parson Weems’ famous biography of George Washington molded young Abe’s idea of America and what a person can become.
Our presidents help us to show and tell our children who we are. Children, even four to eight year olds, surely are aware these days that another president is about to be chosen.
This new book, President Lincoln: From Log Cabin to White House by the award-winning author of over 130 books, named Demi, is a beauty. It is worthy of the almost sacred mission: to tell the children who Lincoln was.
The quality of red color that the publisher, Wisdom Tales, achieved will make this book an emotional favorite for the young who will hold it in their hands. For ages 4 through 8 it is a read-to-me and then a let-me-read-and-look book.
Look they will, as will you.
I was struck not only by the reds but with how many images of open hands are pictured. Lincoln himself opens and closes the book, draped in a huge American flag. With the White House off in the middle distance he is waving open-handed toward the future, looking down the road, looking as he always did out towards yonder. A child would want and hope to be one of those who he is straining to see. He seems to want to find them and to wave them into the American story.
His raised arm says, “I’m still here, come see for yourself!”
Another word about the art. You may remember the flannel boards from Sunday School. They were made up of independent images just kind of stuck there in the midst of supporting objects. Many of the illustrations here are like the old flannel board, both inviting and imaginative. On one page Little Lincoln is out among the deer and the birds at his mother’s grave stone, or, on another, he is unpacking a barrel with books brought by his step mother, Sarah, or he is seen steering a raft down the river. These are iconic images. Your imagination, your child’s imagination, will fill in the picture. As totems in a collage they tell the story with atmosphere, not information, like music might. They will float from your mind’s eye to your heart.
The book is also a resource. Well-planned, and accurate about the high points of his legendary life, it also includes at the end a map of the country in1861, a page with the Gettysburg Address, a chronology of his life, a page of “Fascinating Facts,” things you might not know about Lincoln such as a “Family Man with Animals,” and a wonderful collection of “Famous Quotes” about “Education, Work, Slavery,” and more.
This book includes several things that tell us why we need another book on Lincoln. There are two pages that tell the story of slavery and they feature African American images. Most unique is the representation of the Massachusetts 54th regiment and their historic (and tragic) charge of Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Demi tells us that almost 200,000 African American men fought for the Union cause. She also gives us a page for the newly re-emphasized role that Lincoln played by giving us Thanksgiving as a national holiday, as well as telling us about the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. Children can have their movies lined up for them after reading this book. The film “Glory” is about the 54th Massachusetts regiment, and “Lincoln” is about the 13th Amendment.
Unfortunately the value of the Gettysburg Address is lost here in the main text. While it is reprinted fully in the treasure chest at the end of the book, that is not likely to grab a child’s attention. When the Address is mentioned Demi fails to say anything about the idea of equality, or memory for those who suffered, the rebirth of the nation, or the cause of government of, by, and for the people. Her puzzling sentence is that this famous speech at Gettysburg, “restated the need of the war and the importance of keeping the country together.” I would not say that was the value of that speech, nor will a child connect to those values from her vague mention of the event. This is a real shame because in many other places Demi so wisely features Lincoln as a speaker and gives us a memory-framed quote such as one from the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. From the First Inaugural she frames his saying that we must not be enemies.
Children can forever associate those pictures with the words framed. Demi missed a chance to make a memory for a child with the Gettysburg Address or from the Second Inaugural where there is a picture of the Capitol but no words such as “With malice toward none and charity for all…” Another wonderful child-friendly line could have been framed where Lincoln calls us to care for them “who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” Demi merely mentions that there were cheering crowds and military bands. Those family-based words are found later in the back of the book with the interesting fact that they appear at the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington, D.C.. Children of veterans will like to know that. But to me these are mysterious lapses in an otherwise splendidly stitched quilt of historical words and pictures.
It is worth comparing this rich and beautiful book with the 1940 Caldecott Medal winner Abraham Lincoln by Ingri & Edgar Parin d’Aulaire. Their book is meant for the older young person. But as artists and writers they set a stand for beauty and clarity that Demi’s book rises toward. The d’Aulaires images also have the iconic array of visual symbols for the child’s mind to forever remember. Their sources were Norwegian Folk Art and I believe Demi’s book follows in that tradition. They also were so intent on color and beauty that they used stone lithography, sometimes making etches five times for five colors on stones weighing 50 to 100 pounds. They also went out camping in the natural settings of Lincoln’s childhood. Lincoln became for them, as I am sure for Demi and the people at Wisdom Tales, like a “warm and kind and generous relative who had moved right into our studio with us.”
This is the spirit of Lincoln that continues to swell among us and to be inspirational for us. In the d’Aullaier’s time it was Hitler, they said, who was destroying everything they, and we, held as valuable, “what we had been taught to stand up for as right.” So, too, in our time, there is the danger of evil forces flooding out the memory and the value of Lincoln. That, as well as our coming choice of a new President, makes the value of this book particularly and poignantly relevant. Demi’s book ends with a hope about our future. She does not end with the just the death of Lincoln, but rather with an image of the Lincoln Memorial, and how it arose to stand for courage and for freedom.
Lincoln once said that, “My best friend is a person who will give me a book I have not read.” Now my granddaughter is just three. So I am looking forward to next year when maybe I can become her new best friend and give her this wonderful book by Demi and Wisdom Tales.