Non-fiction Monday is today. Picture Book of the Day has the round-up.
I had lunch with an author the other day and the subject happened to turn to the topic of biographies for children. Sometimes it seems like publishers are afraid of doing anyone new these days. It’s all Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr. There are a whole lot of Helen Kellers and more Anne Franks than a kid could ever really need. Unusual subjects sometimes seem to get the shaft, and this is a real pity. You’d think people would want to learn more about the obscure heroes out there. So when I find myself with yet another Abe Lincoln book in my hands, I am not impressed. I am particularly unimpressed when I realize that 2009 is going to be the year when Lincoln celebrates his 200th birthday. Do you know what that means? It means that we’re going to get swamped in even MORE children’s biographies of Abraham Lincoln. Bearing all this in mind, I decided to read Judith St. George’s newest title, Stand Tall, Abe Lincoln with an eye to the “hook”. Every bio of a much over-examined subject needs a hook. The D’Aulaires’ hook was that in spite of being truly terrible (oh yeah, I said it!) it won the Caldecott. The hook of Russell Freedman’s Lincoln: A Photobiography was that it was beautiful to look at, exquisitely written, and collected all known photographs of Lincoln in a single source. And the hook of Stand Tall, Abe Lincoln? The fact that the turning point that made Abe into a future statesman had much to do with his stepmother. It was his stepmom Sally Johnston who encouraged him to become a great man. And while I would have liked the title or cover of the book to emphasis this point a bit more, the book’s respect for both its subjects is touching and it presents an important story for kids of all ages to hear.
He was born February 12, 1809 to Thomas and Nancy Lincoln in the state of Kentucky. A bright kid, Abe was good in school and lively at home. He talked a blue streak and loved his books. The family moved around a lot and when Abe’s mother died of milk poisoning it was a terrible time. With two kids to support, Thomas went to get a new wife for his family, leaving his kids at home. He returned with Sally, a big loud woman with a lot of energy and a great understanding about what made Abe tick. She gave him books, encouraged him to go to school, and told his father to let him study rather than engage in chores all the time. She was one of his greatest influences and her care for Abe may have helped him to become one of our country’s greatest presidents.
This is apparently the fourth “Turning Point” picture book biography Ms. St. George has created though it is the first that I’ve ever read, and what I liked about it was how much of the tale gives props to Sally Johnston’s influence on her new kids. Essentially the book hits all the high points of young Abe’s youth that these biographies are prone to cover. The day Abe fell in Knob Creek and almost drowned. The time when he got kicked in the head by a mare. The story arc is consistent, though. St. George is very good at tying these little moments into the grander theme of Lincoln’s life. Rote facts become small clues to Abe’s personality, and taken as a whole they build the narrative until Sally’s arrival. A whole book about just Sally wouldn’t make a lot of sense, so instead St. George introduces her within the context of the tale and her appearance is perfectly situated so that she influences not only Abe’s life and course of action but also the course of the story itself. This takes some wrangling on an author’s part, but clearly Ms. St. George has the situation well in hand.
Ms. St. George tends to be paired with illustrators that prefer a lanky watercolor format. Her Caldecott winning, So You Want to be President? featured David Small’s remarkable elastic characters. In this particular case, Matt Faulkner creates his images in gouache on cold press watercolor paper and the pictures just pop. There’s a real physicality to Faulkner’s illustrations. Characters have stubble and moist eyes and loose folds of skin. Hair seems to fall in a natural fashion, fingernails have dirt under them, and bodies splay or wrestle or lounge in natural positions. Faulkner has paired with St. George before, as in their book You’re On Your Way, Teddy Roosevelt, so he’s no stranger to complementing her words.
Maybe you’re sick of all the bios out there on Abraham Lincoln, sure. But there’s a reason that people consider this man to be one of the most fascinating presidents we ever had. His story is the kind of rags-to-riches fare that human beings like to eat up. I like that Judith St. George has had the wherewithal to recognize the importance of Lincoln’s stepmother too, though. Heroic stepparents don’t get a lot of play in either children’s fiction or children’s non-fiction, and in these days of divorce and remarriage I think it’s important to find some that are worth celebrating. Sally Johnston was every bit of that, and it’s important to see how her influence affected the very course of a nation. If you add just one more Lincoln biography to your collection, make sure that you add this one.
On shelves now.
Other Blog Reviews: BooksForKidsBlog
Other Reviews: TCPalm, The News Tribune, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Orlando Sentinel, and the Sun-Sentinel.
Misc: A great School Library Journal round-up of Abraham Lincoln sources, both print and online.