CALDECOTT MEDAL WINNER – 1940
Ingri & Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
New York: Doubleday, 1939
A very approachable biography of Abraham Lincoln, focussing with great detail on his childhood and youth. The events of his early years, the details of pioneer life, farm work, and hard times are simply stated and will fascinate young readers.
This book is a hagiography – Abraham Lincoln in his most heroic light. And he is an engaging and inspiring character for the young. In the various events of the book Abe demonstrates great moral strength and integrity, backed by a willingness to work hard for what is right. From a humble start he rose through talent, brains and hard work to the highest office in the land. It’s all heady stuff, classic Americana, which to our jaded, revisionist eyes may seem laughable, if not totally suspect. When presenting history to children, however, we must remember that there is still value in a bare-faced presentation of all that America fancies itself to be… whether or not the nation has lived up to its own hype. Abe’s defense of a Native American during the Indian Wars, and his stance on slavery were sufficiently forward-thinking to make his story palateable and admirable to modern taste. And, thankfully, the instances of Lincoln’s eccentricities and sense of humour prevent him from seeming altogether too saintly and remote.
(In addition, on a purely historical level the reasons for and events of the Civil War are far from being as straightforward as they are presented here, but for this age group simplicity is appropriate and the story is well told.)
The biggest strength of this book is the vivid depiction of American pioneer life in the early 1800s. Included are details that children will be very interested in – Abe’s bed of leaves in the loft of their homestead, what he ate and wore, what his one-room schoolhouse was like, how he practiced writing with charcoal on the back of a shovel by the light of the fire at night. Even a little story about giving another boy two of his three precious gingerbread men,
...for he didn’t know how to say no.
… is charming in its everyday nature and will appeal and stick in the reader’s mind.
By spending most of the book on Abe’s early years, the story is kept immediate for young readers. His presidency takes up only the final twelve pages of the total fifty-six. And the story ends with the end of the Civil War and Abe sitting back in his rocking chair…
He had done what he should do. He had held together the great nation brought forth upon this continent by his forefathers.
This is how the book ends. I think it was a particularly thoughtful way to end this biography for children – by leaving out his assassination, focus is kept fully on his accomplishments. A similar biography written today would never, ever show such restraint; we are far too enraptured with tragic detail to ever omit the sensational nature of his death.
The d’Aulaires’ illustrations are so straightforward, simple and charming that they breathe new life into this story. I don’t know how they were rendered, but they look suspiciously like they were coloured in with pencil crayons. (I particularly like the map in the end pages – it looks like it was done for a class project!)
A lot of text in this book – would be a very long read-aloud for one sitting, especially since the illustrations and events would spark extra conversation and explanation. This book could instead be read over several nights, or better yet, an ambitious reader could tackle it him/herself.
The d’Aulaires published many other books in their signature style, predominantly other biographies of American historical figures, but I still have vivid memories of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths that I took out of my elementary school library about a hundred times.