Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Looking at Lincoln

I have been reading books for the Cybils like crazy for the last few weeks, and have found some real gems that I can't wait to share with you.  Here's the first of the nonfiction picture books that I would like you to track down and read.  With the movie out about his life and presidency, Abraham Lincoln is a popular president again.  While this book was probably not written to take advantage of the movie's buzz, it will certainly be looked at with interest because of its subject matter.  And my hope is that it is read again and again, because of how well it has been created.

The narrator of this book begins by telling the readers that she saw a man while walking in the park.  He attracted her attention with his unusual height.  He reminded her of someone, but until she finished eating breakfast, she couldn't think who it might be.  When they paid, she realized that he looked like the man on the $5 bill - Abraham Lincoln.

Like my own fondest hope for readers, this chance meeting spurs the narrator on to more research.  She goes to the library to learn more about Abraham Lincoln's life, but she finds that she can't tear herself away from his face.  The narrator recites facts about Lincoln's life and death, inserting her own ponderings, opinions and questions as she goes.  By the end of the story, after the narrator (is it Kalman herself, who is an avowed Lincoln aficionado?) has learned about Lincoln's death, the reader has gotten a much fuller appreciation of his humanity as well as Abraham Lincoln's greatness.

There are some things that I find really fascinating about this book.  First of all, I love the narrator's emphasis on curiosity and research.  She sees the man who reminds her of Lincoln, and that is what sends her directly to the library.  She tells readers "Abraham Lincoln was such an amazing man that there are over 16,000 books written about him.  I wanted to read them all, but I got lost in photos of his unusual face."  The illustration on the facing page shows the narrator, poring over a large portrait of Lincoln.  The library is filled with people reading (and one guy sleeping on a book) and learning.  It is exactly what librarians hope all readers will do - become enthusiastic about a subject and keep researching and learning.

And while the narrator claims to not be able to read about Lincoln because she is so fixated on his face, the facts she learns and shares form the majority of the book.  Another thing that is very unusual about this book is the way Kalman combines facts and fiction in a clear way.  She doesn't have to delineate the difference between them - she lets the fonts do it for her.  Facts are done in a more typewriterly font, resembling print in a book.  Then her opinions or questions about Lincoln are written in a handwriting font.  Her questions are fun to read: "I wonder if Mary and Abraham had nicknames for each other."  She calls Lincoln's face unusual, calls his wife short and says that his stepmother wasn't as stern as she looks.  It brings a light tone to this historical subject and also gives a childlike feel to the book.
Kalman has a very modern illustrative style, and I was very curious about how her style would translate to a historical subject.  But it actually works very well.  She combines very realistic depictions of the family with other more modern objects or colors.  For instance, in a portrait of the Lincoln family, every person looks fairly recognizable, with all of them dressed historically accurately.  But some of the children are colored green, which is not as distracting as it sounds.  I think her chosen style for this book combines modern with historical, much as Kalman does with the text.  It's a well-done book and I recommend it for Lincoln lovers and newcomers alike.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.

Looking at Lincoln.  Maira Kalman.  Nancy Paulsen Books: Penguin for Young Readers, 2012.

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