Looking at Lincoln
By Maira Kalman
Author, illustrator and designer Maira Kalman’s newest picture book is a winner for its reverential, yet very clear-eyed and fully human glimpse of our 16th president. Its genesis started from her New York Times online column called In Love With A. Lincoln. With the approach of President’s Day, folding into one holiday, the celebration of two famous presidential bookends of popularity, Looking at Lincoln is a fresh look at a very familiar face in history.
Ms. Kalman has a natural curiosity about the man whose inscription above his 19 ft. tall statue atop the Lincoln Memorial reads: “In this temple, as in the heart of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever”.
The book begins with two curious promptings towards learning more about the man behind the great, granite memorial. Her first intuition is jogged by a brief glimpse of a passerby in a park, wearing a tall black hat like Lincoln’s and the second comes by way of payment for a coffee shop breakfast with a five-dollar bill bearing Lincoln’s face.
Where would most people go to find out more? Well, for this author, a subsequent trip to the library reveals the fact that there are some 16,000 books written about Lincoln filled with photos of a face not only engraved in stone, but whose unusual, grave and somber visage has triggered much speculation and writing as it has here with Ms. Kalman.
I wanted to read them all, but I got lost in photos of his unusual face. I stared at one. I could look at him forever.
Ms. Kalman begins with the familiar facts of log cabin birth in Kentucky, the dreamer who loved to read, the stepmother who both adored him and encouraged the dreamer and the self-taught pupil of many things, reading by candle glow with few supplies and of course, the kick in the head by the mule. It is said he slept for two days following the incident and later decided to follow the study of law that involved arguing, which, by the way, he liked to do.
So on to Springfield, Illinois and the famous moniker Honest Abe.
The thing that is so wonderful about this book and what makes it so accessible to kids comes from Ms. Kalman’s bits of researched facts, followed up with a series of quiet questions some child out there has probably wondered too. For instance, as he settles into married life with Mary Todd comes this thought:
I wonder if Mary and Abraham had nicknames for each other.
Did she call him Linky?
Did he call her Little Plumpy?
Lincoln wore a very tall hat. (with his hat on he was seven feet tall.) He wrote many notes and stuffed them inside his hat.
What was he thinking about?
Probably it was something about freedom, doing good for mankind, democracy, The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But mixed in there somewhere perhaps were other everyday thoughts of a father towards his son:
And maybe he was also thinking about getting a birthday present for his little son. Maybe a whistle. Or pick up sticks.
You can always tell a lot about a person when you find out what they love: In Lincoln’s case, some favorites were his cross-eyed dog Fido, apples of various varieties, winesaps and white pippins to name two, and music, with Mozart and his opera, The Magic Flute was one Lincoln loved.
The Civil War was a test of whether the country could live half slave, half free. Lincoln’s quote from the Looking at Lincoln book sums up his feelings on the subject in a letter to a friend: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”
But, on April 15, 1865, following the end of the Civil War, Lincoln was shot at a play by someone, as Ms. Kalman states, “who did not want slavery to end”. And at his passing, he was immortalized by then Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton’s famous quote, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Lincoln was fifty-six years old.
Look into the beautiful pages of this remarkable book on Lincoln and if you’ve not done so already, take your children to The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., for as Ms. Kalman perfectly puts it, “And you can look into his beautiful eyes. Just look.”
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