Thursday, August 21, 2008

Book Review: "Lincoln And His Boys"


Of the thousands of books written about Abraham Lincoln over the past 150 years, many have been written specifically for children. These books have typically been brief (but complete) biographies or have focused on his presidency or his own childhood. I remember as a young boy being introduced to the world of Lincoln by some of the more famous of these children's books, such as "Meet Abraham Lincoln" and "Abe Lincoln Gets His Chance." The one thing common style in these books was that the author is also the narrator.

An upcoming book titled "Lincoln And His Boys" presents a different and perhaps unique approach to telling the Lincoln story. The book, authored by Rosemary Wells, shows Lincoln through his children's eyes. Targeted for age group 8-12 years, the book's two "narrators" are Lincoln's two younger sons, Willie and Thomas (or "Tad" as he was called). Opening with the year 1859, each "son" relates the major events affecting them and their family. Through the eyes of "Willie" and "Tad" the reader gets to experience their father's preparation for and election to the presidency; the long journey by train from Springfield to Washington; the Civil War; life in the President's House (as the White House was called in those days); and the emotional walk taken through Richmond, Virginia by Lincoln and Tad after it fell. Along the way, the boys share triumph and tragedy with the reader.

The book is scheduled to be published in January 2009 by Candlewick Press. Thanks to Alicia and Laura at the publishing company, I've been given the opportunity to read an advance copy of the book and would like to share my review. I am not associated with Candlewick Press and I have in no way been compensated by the company. The image of the front cover of the book is used by permission and is copyrighted by Candlewick Press.


Initial Impressions:

Rosemary Wells brings Lincoln to life. This Lincoln is much more approachable and real, even to the adult reader. He's not just the crafty politician who becomes president; he's also a father who worships his children, especially Tad, who in real life was apparently uncontrollable. I found this approach to the Lincoln story refreshing and I suspect it will engage younger readers in a way many other books about Lincoln do not.



Positives:

It's obvious that the author spent much time researching the book. Yet the facts never get in the way of the story, an important consideration for a children's book. Minute details are included such as the name of the hotel where Lincoln and Willie stayed while in Chicago, or the name of the boat which carries Tad and his father to Richmond. Wells was careful to have "Tad" refer to his father as "Papa-day" which is how Lincoln was addressed by Tad, who suffered from a cleft palate. "Papa-day" was Tad's way of saying "Papa dear". As the author herself writes, only the dialogue between the characters is fictional.

Emotions come through beautifully in the writing. "Willie" is worried about his mother's reaction to Lincoln's decision to run for the presidency. The reader experiences both the excitement and boredom of the long trip to Washington. "Tad" shares his devastation and loneliness he feels when his beloved brother Willie dies. The reader feels the grief his parents feel as well.

The illustrations were done in oils, which adds a measure of warmth to the book. The illustrator, P.J. Lynch, has done a fine job in bringing to life the stories told by the boys. The paintings are of a much higher quality than you'd find in most other children's books. They convey movement quite well and are beautiful to look at. Some of the illustrations of Lincoln don't resemble him very accurately, but this is not a major problem.

Finally, the book at only 96 pages is just the right length for the targeted age group. It's tells the important events in the Lincoln family's lives, but does not go on so long as to lose the young reader's interest and attention.


Things Which Made Me Think "Hmmmmm...."

As I was reading the book, a couple of concerns came to mind, one of which I think is fairly major. SPOILER ALERT! Do not read this paragraph and the next one if you don't wish to know just how the book ends. OK? OK. Don't say you've not been warned. "Lincoln And His Boys" concludes on the evening of April 11, 1865 with Lincoln giving a speech in celebration of the surrender of Lee's army. "Tad" tells the story to the reader, letting us know that his "Papa-day" asks for the band to play "Dixie" and how Tad is picking up the pages from his father's speech. "Tad" asks his father if they can go home now, Lincoln smiles, and basically says they can. And that is how the book concludes. It gives the appearance that everyone lived happily ever after, and of course, they did not. Lincoln was shot three nights later and died the morning after that. I've gone back and forth in my mind about the ending for a few days now whether or not I think the ending is appropriate. Other children's books about Lincoln, including ones I read early on, discuss the assassination. It's a tragic ending to the Lincoln story, but it's possibly THE event which helped to gain his entry into the pantheon of American history. On the other hand, the evening of celebration in Washington that night just might have been the last happy night of poor Tad's life. His mother never recovered from losing two sons (Eddie and Willie) and she truly became unhinged after the death of her husband. Tad himself would live only 6 more years, succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 18. In some respects, I can understand why the horrible endings were left out of the book.

Still, I think some mention of the assassination needs to be made. I would suggest the addition of an epilogue or an afterward in which the final facts are explained at an age-appropriate level. In the epilogue, it could be the author telling the reader about what happened, as opposed to "Tad" talking about it. The important thing to consider is that this book could be the first introduction to Abraham Lincoln and his family for many young readers. These readers need to know the entire story, especially since the rest of the book is so accurate.

(end of spoiler!)

Another thing which struck me, albeit on a less important level, is that Ms. Wells makes no mention of the Lincoln family dog left behind in Springfield. "Fido," as he was known, was not taken to Washington with the family because he was terrified of loud noises. Lincoln felt that the dog would not survive the journey on the loud train, and the dog was left in the care of another family. However, Fido was a special member of the family and strict instructions were left with his new owners on how to care for him. Even his favorite horsehair sofa was left so Fido could have some measure of comfort. It is known that Tad, especially, begged Lincoln to not leave Fido behind. Sadness is not avoided in the book and it would've made the overall story about Lincoln and his boys even more endearing if this episode would've been talked about by "Willie" or "Tad."

Finally, I think a basic "table of facts" should have been included. Kids might like to learn more about Lincoln or his boys and birth dates, birthplaces, important events, and so on would have been very helpful.


OVERALL:

"Lincoln And His Boys" is a much-welcomed addition to the world of children's books written about Mr. Lincoln. Indeed, it has the potential to become a classic read for children who want to learn more about our nation's 16th president. The unique approach to the story is refreshing, educational, and very entertaining. It helps the reader, no matter his or her age, to see Lincoln as he was, instead of as some long-dead president who is frozen in time. The ending does leave something to be desired, which is a shame considering how delightful and accurate the story telling is. Nonetheless, I will recommend it to anyone of any age who is interested in learning more about Abraham Lincoln.



RATING:




4.5 out of 5 Log Cabins - Highly recommended.




Publishing Information:


"Lincoln And His Boys" is due for publication in January 2009 by Candlewick Press.

Author: Rosemary Wells

Illustrator: P.J. Lynch

96 Pages Hardbound - $16.99

13 comments:

Christy said...

The artwork looks really beautiful, and your rating system is fantastic!!

Geoff Elliott said...

Thank you, Christy. The art in this children's book is indeed beautiful. I can't get over how much effort went into a kids' book. The rating system (with photos of the "Lincoln Cabin") is probably a little too silly, but life is too short to be serious all the time. :-)

The book really is that good, by the way. Yes, it's written at an 8-12 years of age level, but it's a fascinating and very moving book.

Geoff

Toby said...

Looking forward to adding this to my collection of Lincoln books. Indicentally, here is the cover of the UK edition. It does not seem to have the same illustrator - I far prefer the US cover.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/images/0670061697/sr=1-7/qid=1219929881/ref=dp_image_text_0/026-8592366-7858809?ie=UTF8&n=266239&s=books&qid=1219929881&sr=1-7

Geoff Elliott said...

These are two different books. The link you sent depicts a book which has a different author.

Also, the book you mention is *about* Willie and Tad. The one I reviewed is about Lincoln as seen through his children's eyes.

Thank you for the information, though.

Toby said...

Thanks, I'll make sure to order from the US website and that I am getting the right book.

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts about the ending. I haven't seen the book yet, but from this review I feel inclined to support Well's decision. First, this book -- no book -- will ever the the one book that one reads about Lincoln, or the one place where a person meets him, so I don't think the onus is on the book to tell us everything about him. Second, there are certain things that every semi-literate person knows about Abe Lincoln, and maybe the main one is that he was assassinated. It's such an obvious ending to the book, that in a way by not taking us there herself, Wells makes us go there anywhere, and on our own, at the same time as she also allows us to imagine how life might have gone differently for the family.

Geoff Elliott said...

That's interesting insight. Perhaps the author's motive was to leave the ending "open" this way in order to pique the curiosity and interest in the young reader.

I debated the ending with myself for days, as I wrote in the review. I still think the author should have included at least an "epilogue" or "afterword" about the horrible events which occurred. She was so accurate in her details about everything else from the years 1859 through 1865.

At the very least, the author should have a short reference list directing the young reader towards other resources.

But thank you for taking the time to read the involved post.

Geoff

Anonymous said...

I love the log cabin rating system!

- Erin

PJ Lynch said...

Hi Geoff et al
I am the illustrator of the book "Lincoln And His Boys".
Thanks for those kind comments and the 4.5 log cabins. (Great rating system)
Re my own work , I tried hard to show Lincoln in different lighting, with different expressions and from different angles than we see him in all of those very static photographs that he sat for. Sometimes it worked better for me than others, but that was not for the want of effort.

You can read a little bit about my research on my own blog:
http://pjlynchgallery.blogspot.com/
Of course, Lincoln was a very unusual looking man. If you know the Ostendorf collection of all of the extant photographic portraits of him, you might agree with me that Lincoln sometimes doesn't even look like Lincoln.
Still I'm happy that you liked the pictures in general.
I also made great efforts to achieve likenesses of all the other major characters and as many of the minor ones as I could find reference for.

The story itself, in my opinion, is an exceptional piece of writing. The way that Rosemary Wells so convincingly assumes the role of each of these very different boys, is wondrous to me, and the affectionate portrayal of Abraham Lincoln as a husband and father is utterly convincing.
The point that she chose to end the story is a masterstroke.
After the trials of the war and the loss of Willie, it looks as if this damaged little family may finally find some rest and some peace.
That every reader knows they will find only tragedy, makes the poignancy of the ending almost unbearable.
Great blog
best regards
PJ Lynch

Geoff Elliott said...

Hi Mr. Lynch,

I am honored that you'd drop by my blog in order to read my review of "Lincoln And His Boys."

It is quite simply an extraordinary book and your illustrations/paintings are beautiful. Indeed, I am familiar with Ostendorf's catalog system of Lincoln portraits and own his last compilation book of the Lincoln photos. You are quite correct that in some of those photos, Lincoln doesn't resemble himself at all. People who knew Lincoln claimed that a photo of him never caught the essence of his being and I would tend to believe them.

I hope my comments didn't come across too harshly. Personally, I'm lucky if I can draw a straight line with a ruler, so I cannot criticize anyone's artwork too strongly. :-) I loved the sense of movement in your illustrations.

Yes, Ms. Welles' writing is special. As I wrote in the review, I'm still not sure what to think about the ending. All I know is, the book is fascinating and her attention to detail is amazing.

Thanks for dropping by. Congratulations on the book and I hope it is successful.

Carol Tiffin James said...

I was given a link to your blog by a dear friend. What a treat! I'm the "Lincoln nut" in our family. Thanks for the book reviews. I think my grandkids (5 and 3) will enjoy this one. I've already taught them a lot about Abe, so this will be good to have.

Rosemary Wells said...

Rosemary Wells, the author:

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments and your great rating.
Here are a couple of answers to your questions:
Re: epilogues and timelines:

1. There is timeline. The years in which the story takes place are clearly stated on the part titles of each of the three sections. You don't need more than that.
As to an epilogue, in the end I just didn't want a lot of busy hangtails surrounding this short work. All these facts on Lincoln's life and death are available everywhere anyway. This is a work of newness and the last thing it needed was to be overly earthbound and fussy.

Lincoln and his Boys is not a biography of Abraham Lincoln. Young readers will get the facts of his life and career in their textbooks and in other works.
This book is meant to be only a portrait of Lincoln's relationships as a father. Had I ended the book in Ford's Theatre I would have had to belabor still more un-endurable grief on Mary and Tad's part and send them home inconsolable to their rented house in Springfield. That ending would have put out what little light I was able to find in Lincoln's last four years on earth because it would have been a downer with no bottom. Also I have written a work of Lincoln's time during his life with his boys, not after his death.
The publishers gave me a choice of an epilogue or an author's note. I chose an author's note because that would contain my particulars of why and how I wrote this work and that is not generally available. An epilogue can be supplied with a tap of the finger on Wickapedia!

Above all I wanted humanize Lincoln, away from well worn paths rail splitting and walking sixteen miles to return wet library books!

Rosemary Wells

Geoff Elliott said...

Thank you, Ms. Wells, for dropping by the blog. I've now heard from you and the illustrator as well and I appreciate your thoughtful comments.

I can understand your reluctance to include any details of Lincoln's death. As I suspected, you didn't wish to end the book on such a devastating note. In fact, I wrote that I would think that the night that Tad spent with his father on the White House balcony was probably one of the last happy events in his (Tad's) tragic life.

Thanks again for the clarification. It is truly a remarkable book. I look forward to buying a copy when it's released.

Geoff

 
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