As much as we like to think we know the truth, the whole truth, about a person, place, thing or event, do we ever know everything? Certainly there is one tiny detail, one hidden fact, which changes our perceptions . . . or reinforces what we already believe to be true. It's a little bit tricky when dealing with the past but a diligent detective, a meticulous researcher, can uncover new information.
Our presidents in the United States have had their lives examined with scrutiny. This will continue as long as people are curious about these American political leaders. A deeply respected United States President is Abraham Lincoln. It's safe to say the events described in Abraham Lincoln's Dueling Words (Peachtree Publishers, April 1, 2018) written by Donna Janell Bowman with illustrations by S. D. Schindler have not been the topic of discussion in many classrooms. The word duel is not typically associated with this man.
See those two fellows in the boat, looking all grim and serious?
Maybe you recognize one of them from your history books.
Yep, that's Abraham Lincoln, Springfield's favorite joke-telling, story-spinning, honest-to-the-bone lawyer.
The other man is James Shields. This boat is on its way to Bloody Island. Usually, one party does not return from this dueling land unless the seconds (assistants to duelers) can resolve the conflict. These two men, Lincoln and Shields, have lead similar adult lives but in personality and politics they are opposites.
In the summer of 1842 James Shields worked in the Illinois government as its auditor. He was a Democrat. Due to the fact the state was in financial trouble Shields issued a proclamation demanding people pay their taxes in gold or silver. Paper dollars from banks were no longer acceptable. Of course, Lincoln, a staunch Whig, decided this was making unreal demands on people already suffering from poverty.
His plan was to write a letter about everything wrong with the proclamation and James Shields and sign it Aunt Rebecca. He did it. So did others. Shields was furious. He demanded the editor of the paper reveal the writer. Lincoln told the editor to give out only his name. For a while the two dueled with words and then Shields decided a more deadly form was necessary.
As the man challenged to duel, Lincoln was allowed to make up the terms of the contest. No one expected the weapons he chose. No one expected the layout of the dueling area he proposed. And no one expected a lie would change the course of history.
It's hard not to believe we are not reading an account of these happenings in a local newspaper in 1842. Donna Janell Bowman writes in a style reminiscent of this particular era. Each paragraph is designed to draw us into Springfield, Illinois as citizens.
Her technique of beginning with the men on the boat headed toward Bloody Island, then stepping back in time to describe both Lincoln and Shields, the proclamation and subsequent incidents and back to the duel is excellent. This is how storytellers involve their audience. When she weaves facts and quotes into the narrative we are spellbound. Here is a passage.
Back in Springfield, folks knew Lincoln for his top-hatted head full of smarts, but also for his friendliness and knee-slapping tales. Any little ol' thing could start a story spinning in his mind. Even in court, which should have been quiet and businesslike, something might tickle his funny bone.
"That brings to mind a story," he would begin. Often, his homespun tale would sway the jury to his side. Sometimes, the judge even busted out laughing.
"If I did not laugh," Lincoln said, "I would die."
The matching dust jacket and book case leave no doubt in readers' minds about the current mood of the two men, one President Lincoln, with their backs to each other. What we don't know is who the other man is. What we don't know is why dueling is in the title. It's a mystery and that is what makes us want to open this book.
To the left, on the back, a quotation
"I cannot submit to
answer your note any further
until your accusation
is placed between the two men, writing at their respective desks. The red used in the title text covers the opening and closing endpapers. Two title pages with crisp white backgrounds only show the vivid title text. In fact, throughout the book, white frames many of the illustrations. These pictures span two pages, single pages, single images crossing the gutter and groupings of smaller visuals. All supply stellar pacing.
These images rendered in watercolor and ink by S. D. Schindler accurately depict a true-to-life historical perspective. The characters are animated. The details invite us to pause and study each picture. On the boat headed toward Bloody Island a long hook lying on the deck, a dueling pistol held by Shields and a curved blotter on Lincoln's desk, ready for use, reference this time period. S. D. Schindler also includes small bits of humor. You need to notice the eyes in the portrait in the room when Lincoln is speaking at a gathering.
One of my many favorite illustrations is of Lincoln pacing in front of his desk as he reads the proclamation. His frustration is evident in his body posture and the position of his one arm and hand behind his head. He is also deep in thought. A dog sits next to the desk watching Lincoln. (Lincoln is well-known for his fondness of animals.)
After reading this book, Abraham Lincoln's Dueling Words written by Donna Janell Bowman with illustrations by S. D. Schindler, you find yourself excited to share this information with the first person you meet. You want to, at the very least, make sure this is something enjoyed in classrooms. At the close of the book the words SANGAMO JOURNAL are the heading for a two page author's note about the duel, mudslinging in the written word, Aunt Rebecca letters, James Shields and the Illinois Banking Crisis. Donna Janell further speaks about writing this title and provides sources with a link for a more extensive list of resources on the last page.
To learn more about Donna Janell Bowman and S. D. Schindler and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their respective websites. Donna Janell Bowman has several pages dedicated to this title; some are here and here. At the publisher's website you can read an excerpt, use a teacher's guide and view questions and answers with the author. Donna Janell Bowman is interviewed by Deborah Kalb. Enjoy the book trailer.
I hope you will stop by Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the titles selected this week by others participating in the 2018 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.