by Russell Freedman
Recommended Age: 10+
After reading most of the books that have won a Newbery Medal, I had begun to sense a pattern. Books focusing on a teen or pre-teen character, growing up in what is now a lost or dying way of life, tend to be shoo-ins for the Newbery award. If it’s about a kid raising pigs in Iowa, or sheep in New Mexico, or maple sugar in Vermont, it’s virtually guaranteed to win. So it is refreshing to encounter a book that breaks this pattern. In 1988, the Newbery Medal went to this non-fiction book about the life of America’s 16th president, decorated not by cute illustrations but by historic photographs, documents, quotes, and political cartoons.
More books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than about any other American. A good number of them have been written for young readers. What is there in this book that sets it above the others? I would say its simplicity and directness of style; its thorough, balanced, and well-organized depiction of Lincoln as a man and as a leader; and the amazing way it boils down a rich, complicated life and career into a short, easy-to-read book without sacrificing the intriguing details. There is also an undeniable emotional power in the description of Lincoln’s death and burial. I was so choked up that my cat Tyrone became concerned.
Well, that completely blew my credibility as a book reviewer. Oh, well. Here’s the bit that got to me...
Robert Lincoln [the president’s grown-up son] was summoned to join the hushed crowd around his father’s bedside. Outside, cavalry patrols clattered down the street. Another assassin had just tried to murder Secretary of State William Seward. Everyone suspected that the attacks were part of a rebel conspiracy to murder several government officials and capture the city....and so did I, even before I read the bit where Lincoln actually died. I don’t care if you think Lincoln misused his powers as president, or if you think the South should have won the so-called “war between the states.” I know there are still such people in this country, and not all of them are in the South. You should read this book. It takes a fair approach to Lincoln and his time, with all the blemishes on both sides; and it correctly identifies the reason Lincoln has gone down in history as one of the most important leaders the United States ever had. Love him or loathe him, you have to respect the toughness, the courage, and indeed, the wisdom of the man whose Emancipation Proclamation saved the Union and, at the same time, changed it forever.
By dawn, a heavy rain was falling. Lincoln was still breathing faintly. Robert Lincoln surrendered to tears, then others in the room began to cry.