Thursday, March 5, 2009

Abraham Lincoln

I have not forgotten nor overlooked that this year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of our 16th president. The publishing world certainly did not forget as there seems to be a new book about Lincoln at every corner. Happily for all of us there are several that are well worth reading--even nearly a month after Abe Lincoln's birthday.

The first two here are presented in a picture book format but are well worth reading at any age.

Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale by Deborah Hopkinson is great fun to read aloud because it has a certain Kentucky twang to it. "Now, here's an old tale," it begins, "of two boys who got themselves into more trouble than bear cubs in a candy store." If that doesn't capture your interest, take a look at the pictures by John Hendrix. They often include the hand of the artist who seems to be hurrying to finish the picture. The moral of the story--that what you do may never make it into history books while greatly affecting the course of history--is not all that is learned by reading this book. The classes to whom I read this book were intrigued by the concept that historians really don't know everything that happened. They can't tell us what a person was thinking or even what actually happened in the midst of the event. Did Lincoln's pal rescue Abe by pulling on his shirttail or did he reach out with a long stick? No one can ever truly know, so the author here let's the artist decide what to draw. How many times do historians fill in the gaps in the story with something that appeals to them or perhaps is easier to illustrate? The story ends by asking "And without Abe Lincoln, where would we be?" This leads to interesting discussions. I prefer to think that someone else would have stepped up to write an Emancipation Proclamation, but what else would we have missed. Our seventh grade students this year contemplated what would be different if Lincoln had either died before the end of the Civil War or lived out his term and into retirement. This is a topic than can be pondered and discussed over and over. That is a mental exercise that I always enjoy.

Mr. Lincoln's Boys: Being the Mostly True Adventures of Abraham Lincoln's Troublemaking Sons, Tad and Willie by Staton Rabin made me immediately think how happy I am that there are once again children in the White House. The story is of how much Lincoln doted on his young sons even while others in the White House saw the boys as misbehaving, terrorizing the many people who worked and visited their oh-so-public home. The boys, according to this book, did take liberties with proper conduct. They were known to ring all the call buttons for the servants at the same time or at least in rapid order to keep the servants running from room to room, trying to answer the call. The crux of the story is of the boy's toy soldier, proudly dressed in the red uniform of the Fire Zouaves. Jack, the soldier, constantly gets into trouble for various breaches of military conduct. Tad and Willie put him on trial, convict him, and sentence him to death by firing squad. It is the grave they dig in the rose garden that gets them in trouble. When an angry gardener interrupts their digging, the boys rush to their father, bursting in on a meeting with various generals. The solution to the problem with Jack is to offer a presidential pardon. The document that Lincoln wrote is reproduced in the book, showing this side of a president in the midst of one of the hardest times in American history. When asked why he caters to his children, Lincoln talks about how they offer a bright spot in his darkest days. That is what made me think of Obama, or any person who needs an opportunity to think about something other than the tough issues that they are facing. That is maybe the biggest reason why I want to continue working where I am as long as possible. Thank you, kids, for daily giving me reasons to smile.

Abe Lincoln's Hat by Martha Brenner is not one of the new books; it was published in 1994. It is, however, one of my favorite non-fiction easy reader books. It tells the story behind Abe's fondness for tall top hats. He stored papers in that spacious hat. Otherwise he tended to misplace important notes that he made. Books that make the people in history books seem human are always favorites with me.

Our Abe Lincoln: An Old Tune with New Lyrics adapted by Jim Aylesworth is a picture book that bests suits those in Kindergarten to grade three. Using the tune of "The Old Gray Mare" (though I learned this first as "Old Abe Lincoln") the verses on two page spreads tell the story of Abraham Lincoln in the simplest of terms. The illustrations are of a young class putting on a play based on the words of the verse. The play/story begins with "Babe Abe Lincoln was born in the wilderness." and ends with "Great Abe Lincoln died hard for his noble deeds." Along the way, the story of his life unfolds with lighthearted illustrations by Barbara McClintock. For those who want a little more information, facts are listed at the end of the book for each of the events shown. The kids and I had fun singing along with the story. I am sure your family will, too.

Finally, a biography for older students. This is not another biography of Abraham Lincoln, however. By upper elementary or middle school most students feel that they know all about the president. They are more interested in others who were a part of the Lincoln story. Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth by James Cross Giblin tells about the man who assassinated Lincoln as well as his lesser known good brother, Edwin. Both brothers were actors but there lives diverged in an important way when John took his political feelings too far. The book not only looks at the assassination's impact on the nation but also on the Booth family. Like the young pal who saved the life of Lincoln in the first book on this list, this book looks at a part of history that is often left out of history books, especially those for those in elementary and middle school.

Happy Birthday, Abe. American school children will be thinking about the impact you had on history and on their lives for years and years to come.

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