Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Know Him, Remember Him...Our Third President

The impression made by Gary Paulsen's powerful, historical fiction title, Nightjohn, has not diminished in more than twenty years since I first read it.   At the time I was equally intrigued by the dedication,

This book is dedicated to the memory of Sally Hemings, who was owned, raised and subsequently used by Thomas Jefferson without benefit of ever drawing a single free breath.

None of the history textbooks or historical fiction I had read up to this point had ever made any mention of Sally Hemings.  I turned to other works by Barbara Chase-Riboud, Sally Hemings:  A Novel and its sequel, The President's Daughter as well as a title penned by well-known historical fiction author, Ann Rinaldi, Wolf By The Ears.  Not for the first time or the last, I found myself thankful for the endeavors of authors and their historical fiction titles.

With a great deal of interest I looked forward to reading the newest picture book by Maira Kalman, Thomas Jefferson:  Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group).  I was curious to see if she would mention Sally Hemings in this biographical piece on this multifaceted man.  As I have come to expect with books written and illustrated by the talented Maira Kalman, I was not disappointed.

Thomas Jefferson
had red hair and some freckles (about 20 I think),
he grew to be very tall
and oh yes, he was the third President 
of the United States.

We are matter-of-factly informed he was born in 1743.  When we are asked what interested Jefferson, we are told everything captured his attention.  To begin the man surrounded himself with books.  From those books he could discover anything about everything.  He could even say please in seven different languages.

(He was quite polite.)

As an architect he designed and built his magnificent home, Monticello; seventy-six windows filled the walls.  Flower and vegetable gardens spread across the estate.  Jefferson believed the largest portion of meals should be vegetable rather than meat.

Inside his beloved Monticello rooms featured gathered collections of artifacts.  His own bedroom was arranged so he could step into his study or step outside depending on which side of the bed he left.  Several hours were devoted every single day to perfecting his violin playing.

Significant people in his life, his wife, Martha, his daughter Patsy and the founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and George Washington are recognized.  His authorship of The Declaration of Independence, his tenure as third President of the United States, his acquisition of lands from the French and his part in the Lewis and Clark Expedition are duly noted.  These pages reveal the remarkable accomplishments of this exceptional man.  But...

While Jefferson said slavery should end, he owned about one hundred fifty slaves.  Walking along Mulberry Row one could see their living quarters, tiny rooms with little belongings inside them.  His slaves worked all day long making sure everything at Monticello was exactly as he desired.

This monumental man had monumental flaws.

As we continue reading Sally Hemings is introduced to readers; first by showing us her name on his farm book, then on the opposite page with a stunning portrait and a narrative explanation.

As he ages, Jefferson's practical nature emerges in his clothing and its repair, his desire to be outdoors riding his horse or walking and in carrying his favorite penknife (interesting to see this style was available).  Given his lifetime, his date of death, his gravestone and epitaph will cause readers to pause and wonder.  As suggested, I cannot imagine those who read this picture book biography not wanting to visit Monticello, experiencing the past, gaining further insights into this striking individual.

Even without reading the acknowledgements it's apparent Maira Kalman has spent considerable time gathering information in pursuit of her passion for this subject.   All the extra details give readers a clearer vision of Thomas Jefferson the man; items in his collections, the kinds of peas in his garden and advice given to his daughter.  We are privy to his numerous lasting accomplishments and his serious weaknesses. The writing technique of including personal asides among the factual narrative creates energy not unlike that possessed by  the man being discussed. Here is a single example.

He also loved
He practiced his violin
three hours a day.
did he
have TIME
for THAT?

Rendered in gouache the vibrant illustrations throughout this title begin on the matching jacket and cover.  Jefferson's portrait with Monticello in the background on the front is pulsing with life. On the back a closer view of Monticello at night greets readers.  A portion of The Declaration of Independence covers the opening and closing endpapers in shades of green on green.  Jefferson on horseback is gazing upward toward Monticello on the title page.

Maira Kalman's color palette is bold, bright, colorful and full of spirit.  Her backgrounds shift from black to white to purple to red to blue providing frames for single-page illustrations or those crossing the gutter.  At times elements will appear as cut-outs, large and small on single or double-page spreads; a shoe, the list of peas, George Washington's teeth or the map of the United States depicting Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

 Of many favorite illustrations, one is the two-page picture of Jefferson's vegetable garden.  The many hues of green accented with pinks, yellows and blues is uplifting.  A small gazebo structure with two chairs overlooks the rows of plantings.  Toward the bottom of the page a table holds baskets of recent pickings.  On the right side is a list of peas Jefferson planted enclosed in the shape of a seed packet.  In the background at the top of the page we see the rolling hills.

Thomas Jefferson:  Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything written and illustrated by Maira Kalman is an outstanding accounting of a complex person.  Words and pictures work seamlessly together to breathe life into this man's persona, those people closest to him and his home, Monticello.  With every reading my admiration for Maira Kalman and this book continues to grow. Thank you, Maira Kalman.

At the conclusion of the book twenty-one people, places and events are further defined on two pages.  Please follow the link embedded in Maira Kalman's name to her website.  I recommend you follow this link to the Monticello website.  It is loaded with resources.

I am excited to be participating in Alyson Beecher's 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted at her blog Kid Lit Frenzy.  Make sure you stop over there to see all the other nonfiction picture books showcased by other bloggers.


  1. Hi Margie, I have been seeing this book in a few places and I would really like to read it. What an interesting man!

    1. Hello Gigi! I think you and your students would really enjoy reading it. It's one of those books which will work with a wide age group. I found it fascinating.

  2. I LOVE this book! Excellent review!

    1. I do too, Jama! In fact I ordered two more books by Maira Kalman today. Thank you for visiting!

  3. Wow - what a cover and I loved the text you shared at the beginning of the post. Looks like a fabulous book for American students to learn about an important figure in their history.

    1. Thank you, Carrie. I think this book is special because it addresses the whole man. Readers need to get the entire picture. This is one of those picture books which could even be used in high school.

  4. Margie - I love "how did he have time for that" - No twitter, facebook, internet, tv...haha! Thanks for sharing this one. I saw it on Sunday but held off on buying it.

    1. I love it too, Alyson! That's another reason this book is great! Maira Kalman's personal comments make it feel like we are in a conversation with her. I hope you can get a copy soon. Have fun at ALA.

  5. Margie, what a wonderful review! Looks like the book has great illustrations :) I will ask my librarian to see if she has it. Sandra D. @Sadcampanita025

    1. Thank you, Sandra! I hope your librarian has a copy. It's a new title this month. It's one of the best picture book biographies I've ever seen.