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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Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick DouglassAbraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship by Russell Freedman. Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company), 2012. 128 pages. Recommended for ages 9-14. ISBN: 9780547385624.

In school in the 1960s and 70s I learned that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves and that Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator. Much later, I learned that the Civil War was fought to maintain the Union. In this book, Freedman presents a much more nuanced history.

Freedman starts with a biography of Frederick Douglass, then moves on to a biography of Abraham Lincoln. Both men were self-educated and both were avid readers. Douglass was an activist and Lincoln was an analytical, pragmatic politician.

At the time of Lincoln’s Senate race against Stephen Douglas he believed that “’A house divided against itself cannot stand,’” and “’I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.’” It was at this point that Douglass began to notice Lincoln.

When Lincoln ran for president, he was opposed to the expansion of slavery beyond the states that ratified the Constitution, but he ”believed that the Constitution protected slavery in the southern states.” He thought that as long as slavery didn’t spread, it would eventually die out.

After becoming president, not at all certain the North could with the Civil War, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation appears to have been a pragmatic move to deprive the South of the workers it needed for its economy and to add soldiers to the Union army.

When Lincoln and Douglass first met, they didn’t agree. They did admire each other. And they did listen to each other

Lincoln asked Douglass to the White House for a second visit. He hoped Douglass could help spread the word about the Emancipation Proclamation in Southern states so more former slaves would move North. He also wanted to talk with Douglass about his idea of a 13th amendment to the Constitution that would abolish slavery.

Douglass and Lincoln met for the third time on the occasion of Lincoln’s second inauguration. Douglass was nearly turned away from the celebratory gala. He sent word to Lincoln that he was being detained. He was immediately escorted into the White House and Lincoln said “’Here comes my friend Douglass.’”

As the war drew to a close Lincoln focused his attention on the 13th amendment. It’s clear that, while Lincoln may have originally thought Civil War was about maintaining the Union, his ideas developed and he saw the importance of ending slavery as well. What part in this development Douglass played is not completely clear, but it’s very clear that Lincoln valued Douglass’s thoughts.

Lincoln’s view of Douglass as an equal and a sometimes ally, sometimes opponent, says a great deal about what Lincoln the individual thought about African-Americans.

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BrotherhoodBrotherhood by A.B. Westrick. Viking (an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group), 2013. 368 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 10 and older. ISBN: 9780670014392. On sale September 12, 2013.

This is my first review of an Advanced Reading Copy! I received it from a friend.

Shad is a 14-year-old white boy in a burned out Richmond, Virginia two years after the end of the Civil War. He lives with his mother and his older brother, Jeremiah. His father was killed in the war. His grandfather owns a tailoring business. Shad and his mother help his grandfather. Jeremiah, 19, is a bully. Even though he bullies Shad, Shad wants his approval.

Jeremiah and Shad both join a new organization where everyone hides their identity by wearing white sheets. It is the Brotherhood. It is the Ku Klux Klan. Shad originally believes it to be an organization that looks after war widows and orphans. He soon discovers it also instigates violent acts against blacks and northern whites. Jeremiah questions Shad’s loyalty to the white south when he realizes Shad is uncomfortable with the violence.

Shad doesn’t know how to read, but he wants desperately to learn. He meets a black girl, Rachel, who teaches a school for several black children. Rachel begins teaching Shad to read. In exchange, he teaches the black children to sew. He keeps this aspect of his life secret.

All this takes place against the backdrop of martial law in Richmond.  The Yankee occupation causes a smoldering resentment among the white citizens of Richmond. Jeremiah also says he can’t find a job because all the jobs he wants to do are now done for less money by blacks.

Shad is a character in an intense conflict. He wants Jeremiah to think well of him. He craves the brotherhood aspect of the Klan.  He is very uncomfortable with the violent aspect of the Klan. He believes blacks should stay in their place, but he loves teaching the black kids tailoring techniques and he loves learning to read at Rachel’s school.

Westrick doesn’t make this conflict easy for Shad, and thus it isn’t easy for the reader. According to my sensibilities, the Klan is bad and people who think blacks are lesser humans are wrong. Shad isn’t so sure. Westrick respects Shad’s uncertainty.  She respects the anger and resentment of Southern whites immediately following the Civil War.

I found the first 60 pages of the book difficult to follow because the narrative jumps around in time. After that the narrative is easy to follow and the pace is excellent.

I’d love to discuss this book with a group of middle-grade kids.

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Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Lincolns Gettysburg AddressLincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Written by Abraham Lincoln. Illustrated by James Daugherty. New introduction by Gabor S. Borritt. Albert Whitman & Company, 2013 (originally published in 1947). 48 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 6 to 18. ISBN: 9780807545508.

This larger than life book was originally published in 1947. It’s been re-released in this 150th anniversary year of the Gettysburg Address. The original book included a forward by James Daugherty, the Gettysburg Address written on a single page, and then 15 two-page spreads. Each spread includes a phrase from the Gettysburg Address as well as a painting that resembles a WPA mural. The new book includes these elements plus an afterword by Gabor Boritt, an emeritus professor of civil war studies at Gettysburg College and Daugherty’s notes on each of his paintings.

The words themselves are, of course, remarkable. They are part of our heritage. The paintings, with their deep, rich, colors are awe-inspiring. I have spent at least an hour looking at them. Each time I go back to a spread, I see things I missed on previous viewings. And I still wonder about what’s included in some of the spreads, even after reading Daugherty’s comments. I can imagine two or three children gathered around a copy of this book trying to puzzle out what’s meant by elements of the paintings.

The paintings are a product of their time. They reference the first and second world wars as well as the Civil War. I am disappointed that the people in the paintings are overwhelmingly white. On the spread where the words “and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” not one single nonwhite person is included in the painting. On the last spread, where the words “and that government of the people by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth,” there are several blacks and even one Asian-looking man. These spreads could be used to discuss how far we’ve come in thinking about race and diversity since 1947.

For all their drawbacks, the paintings are amazing and make the book well worth having in a library, a classroom or a personal collection.

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Interesting Articles:

Serendipitous Discovery Leads to Timely Reissue at Albert Whitman by Claire Kirch. Publisher’s Weekly, January 10, 2013.

I Am Harriet Tubman

I Am #6 Harriet TubmanI Am #6: Harriet Tubman. Written by Grace Norwich.  Cover illustration by Mark Fredrickson.  Interior illustrations by Ute Simon.  Scholastic Inc., 2013.  Publisher recommends for ages 8 and older.  127 pages.  ISBN: 978054548367. 

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland in 1821. She escaped to freedom in her late 20s and from then on worked tirelessly to end slavery. She was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, returning over and over again to the south to guide more than 70 slaves to freedom. When slavery ended, she worked for the rights of blacks in the United States, and also for the rights of women.

This book is an excellent introduction to Harriet Tubman. It covers her entire life and does so at a pace fast enough to keep the reader interested. The beginning of the book contains some history of Harriet Tubman’s family, and thus some history of slavery.  The details of her many trips on the Underground Railroad increase the fascinating nature of the book.

The pencil illustrations break up the text and add additional information. Boxes contain facts related to Harriet Tubman and freedom and slavery are included. The boxes, though, aren’t so long that they take the reader’s focus away from the text of the book.

The cover illustration is in color and shows a fearless woman reaching out a beckoning hand.

After reading I Am Harriet Tubman, I’d like to know more about this courageous and powerful woman.  Several books are listed as possibilities for further reading.  The end papers also include a map of the Underground Railroad, a list of 10 things one should know about Harriet Tubman, followed by a list of 10 more interesting facts, a glossary and index.

The quality of the binding isn’t great. I suspect it will fall apart after three or four readings in a school library. This isn’t a reason not to buy the book, but it may be a reason to buy multiple copies.

Although the title of the book implies the book is written in first person, it’s actually written in third person, with a three page first person spread in the very beginning.

Harriet Tubman’s primary work wasn’t as a politician, but through her civil disobedience she helped to bring about political change.

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.