Lincoln: A Photobiography

LincolnLincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman. Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 1987. 160 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 9-12. ISBN: 9780395518489.

1988 Newbery Medal.

Russell Freedman takes kids seriously. This is not a “nice” biography that gives kids a story about honest Abe. This is a serious attempt to write about Lincoln in all of his complexity.

Freedman shows Lincoln as a human being. Lincoln was sometimes deeply depressed, as was his wife, Mary. He sank into despair after the deaths of his two sons. Lincoln had a self-disparaging sense of humor that he used to put people at ease and to please crowds when he gave speeches. Above all, Lincoln had an interest in and concern for his fellow human beings regardless of the color of their skin. Frederick Douglass is quoted as saying that Lincoln was unique because he never reminded Douglass of the different colors of their skin. Every afternoon Lincoln talked with constituents who lined up to ask the president for help.

Ambition was always a part of Lincoln’s personality. He wanted to learn to read, and then to read widely. He wanted to study the law, and eventually had a successful legal practice. He wanted to win elections, and he did.

Lincoln was not a leader in the cause of abolition. He believed slavery would end naturally. Freedman allows the reader to watch as Lincoln’s attitude toward slavery gradually changes until close to the end of his life he pushes hard for the 13th amendment to the Constitution which outlaws slavery.

Preserving the union was the original purpose of the Civil War. Freedman shows the reader how the view of the purpose of the war changed slowly until at the end of the war it was clear the war was about freeing the slaves.

The day-to-day details of the Civil War were a frustration to Lincoln. It took him several years to find the right generals, but when he finally did the war ended quickly.

The text is full of quotations from Lincoln and others. The quotations are woven into the text so well that the reader is never jolted out of the story by the quotations.

The book contains many pictures. Some are of Lincoln. Some are of political rivals, and generals and soldiers. There are pictures of Lincoln’s wife and his sons. I was particularly struck by a photograph of Lincoln taken on April 10, 1865, just before his death. The photo captures Lincoln’s eyes, rich with intelligence and feeling. Freedman captures the same richness in Lincoln the man.

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Anita Silvey’s Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac
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The Newbery Project
Sunday Cummins Experience Nonfiction

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Looking at Lincoln

Looking at LincolnLooking at Lincoln, written and illustrated by Maira Kalman.  Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin, 2012.  32 pages.  Publisher recommends for ages 5-8.  ISBN: 9780399240393.

The narrator of this book about Abraham Lincoln is fascinated by his face.  She wants to learn as much as she can about Lincoln. She learns the well-known facts such as his poverty as a child, his honesty and the difficulties of his presidency. Whimsy also has a place. She imagines that on the day Lincoln was elected president his wife made him his favorite vanilla cake. She wonders if Lincoln and his wife had nicknames for each other. While Lincoln was thinking deep thoughts about the United States and about democracy, she imagines that he also thought about getting a birthday present for his son.  An illustration of the uniform of one of the first soldiers killed in the Civil War brings out one of the most serious commentaries. There’s also a shockingly serious commentary above the pistol with which Lincoln was killed.

It seems as if the narrator, in her commentaries, is attempting to humanize Lincoln for herself. This is a very difficult task for a textbook to accomplish. This book has text book information, but it also has the commentaries, so Lincoln becomes the narrator’s picture of a vital, living person rather than just “the 16th president.”

The facts of the book are printed in typeface. The narrator’s commentaries are, in a very readable print/cursive combination. Some of the words in the commentaries are brightly colored for emphasis.

The illustrations add color and emotional depth to the book. One of the funnier illustrations shows a mule wearing a hat and looking recalcitrant on the lower right, and two legs flying off the ground in the upper left.  This illustrates Lincoln being kicked in the head by a mule. The illustration of the time of mourning following Lincoln’s death is a two-page spread using dark blue and black and gray and white. But the commentary notes that “a great man is never really gone.” The next page is full of pink cherry blossoms and bright green grass. In the final illustration, the narrator is at the Lincoln Memorial, looking into Lincoln’s eyes, and the colors are pastels.

At the end of the book there are many notes about Lincoln and about the facts in the book.

“Looking at Lincoln” is a beautiful introduction to Lincoln, as well as a conversation starter about Lincoln, about slavery, about the Civil War, about political assassination and about legacy.