WWAR? (What Would Abe Read?)
Abraham Lincoln came from poverty and rose to lead the country through the greatest trouble a nation can have: a civil war. Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Kentucky in 1809, and was basically self educated. A voracious reader, he grew up to become a lawyer and an Illinois congressman before being elected US President in 1860. Perhaps his greatest legacy is abolishing slavery in the United States and this was foreshadowed early in his life: when he was a child, his family moved twice to get out of pro-slavery areas, and as a representative on both the state and national levels, Lincoln spoke out and voted against slavery consistently.
According to David Herbert Donald’s 1996 biography Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln read and reread such books as The Bible, Aesop’s Fables, Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Taking a leap of imagination, and asking the spirit of President Lincoln for forgiveness for my temerity, I would like to suggest half a dozen YA books that the sixteenth president might very much enjoy today.
Let us begin with the obvious, shall we? Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is required reading for many middle and high school students in the US, and for a good reason. Though written in 1895 by a man who never fought in a war, the novel is hailed for its realism and honesty about battles, bravery, and coming of age. Soldiers today praise its portrayal of life in the field. Mr. Lincoln might very well enjoy reading such a well-written and well-regarded book about “his” war.
And now for something that is perhaps not obvious at all. The 2007 Printz Award winning American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang might grab Mr. Lincoln’s attention with it’s gorgeous illustrations and quiet palette; but its themes of race, identity, and self acceptance, along with its intelligent humor might very well keep the president reading. With his anti-slavery stance, Lincoln was most assuredly focused on race and identity, and the fact that he was a self-made man with a good sense of humor leads me to think he’d enjoy those aspects of the book as well.
Lincoln was a lifelong reader (and rereader) who taught himself law using only books. He knew the power of reading can bring people together, can give intellectual and moral instruction, can give the reader a way to escape their own world and visit another, and can even make a reader do things that may be illegal. Yes, I think President Lincoln would like Markus Zuzak’s The Book Thief (2007 Printz Honor book) very much indeed.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini (2007 Best Books for Young Adults)might be a book that the former president would embrace. Lincoln suffered with depression his entire life, as did the late Ned Vizzini. Both men also had great intelligence, a way with words, and quite a wry sense of humor. One account of his wedding day has Lincoln pacing and looking nervous right before the ceremony. When asked where he was going, Lincoln replied, “To hell, I suppose.”
President Lincoln might well appreciate A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson (2006 Printz Honor book). While the subject matter would probably grab the president’s attention, that this title about a young man whose violent death sparked the civil rights movement is eloquently written in expertly crafted poetry would not hurt either.
Hole in My Life (2003 Printz Honor book)- While reading about Abraham Lincoln’s life, it becomes clear that while he was an incredible human, someone who picked himself up by his own bootstraps, and one of America’s greatest presidents, he was no angel. He might well relate to and enjoy reading about Jack Gantos’s youthful life of crime (and punishment) and how Gantos used books and writing to pull himself up and onto a path of success.
-Geri Diorio, currently reading Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam