Wednesday, February 13, 2008


VINNIE AND ABRAHAM by Dawn Fitzgerald, illustrated by Catherine Stock (Charlesbridge)
My work has never been a labor, but an ecstatic delight to my soul. I have woked in my studio not envying kings in their splendor; my mind to me was my kingdom, and my work more than diamonds and rubies. If my encouraging words can help any struggling artist to have new hope, I shall be glad..." -Vinnie Ream
With so many men away fighting the Civil War, women were given new opportunities for employment, and fourteen-year-old Vinnie Ream took on work sorting dead letters in the post office. During her noon breaks, she slipped away to the Washington graveyards, cultivating her gift for sculpture. Realizing "I'll have to make my own opportunity if I ever hope to make art," she apprenticed herself out to a famous artist, who could not deny her talent. Soon Vinnie reputation spread, and she was able to sculpt the likenesses of haughty congressmen, always putting out into the universe and into their influential ears her dearest wish: to sculpt the face of the brave President Lincoln, whom she often saw walking among the people despite many threats of assasination. Her wish was eventually granted, but bittersweet. After the deed of John Wilkes Booth, Congress sought to hire a sculptor to create a memorial statue of President Lincoln. Could Vinnie's image of the president as a kind and gentle man compete with other visions of Lincoln as a warrior or saint? Would the bias against her age and gender stop her from giving the gift she wanted to create for her country?

Besides being a tribute to a woman who never gave up, this is an extraordinary story of friendship and admiration, of two parallel lives converging in a way that resonates through all time. The graceful writing in this book lends itself to smooth storytelling, and almost euphoric levels of inspiration. Have a hanky handy; I cried twice during the reading, just rooting for Vinnie and celebrating her achievement as the youngest and first woman to receive a commission from the U.S. government. Stock makes watercolors look easy, with varied layout, an expressive style that captures Vinnie's indomitable energy and what surely was also a loveliness about her, and also evokes the flavor of the period. Capped off with a stirring author's note and a manageable list of both print and internet resources, this unassuming picture book biography was never boring, and achieves a level of excellence will truly take readers by surprise. It's the best Civil War period piece to hit the children's shelves since Patricia Polacco's PINK AND SAY. (7 and up)

Also of interest:
These all get my endorsement for President's Day picks...and a storytime pick any day! Read early and often.
GEORGE WASHINGTON'S TEETH by Deborah Chandra and Madeleine Comora,illustrated by Brock Cole (Farrar Straus and Giroux) What was the biggest challenge for the father of our country? The invasion of British troops? Winter at Valley Forge? No, it was toothaches that ultimately brought poor George Washington to his knees! Starting at age twenty-four, Washington lost a tooth a year (spitting out two as he crossed the Delaware) and by the time he took office, he had only two chompers left! No wonder he didn't smile for his portraits! Told in witty verse, we follow the immortal general as he battles this mortal and mortifying malady. The watercolors are glorious and humane. This book shows that even the most powerful people are prone to an Achilles' heel (or molar), and incorporates all sorts of fascinating and downright juicy history. A timeline is included at the end, along with a photograph of Washington's last set of dentures carved from hippopotamous ivory. It is unusual to find history told in a way that is so accessible and compelling to young children. How resonating is this book? After we first readthis some years ago, my son came up to me wiggling a tooth and announced joyfully, "Ma! I'm just like George Washington!" (6 and up)

ABE LINCOLN: THE BOY WHO LOVED BOOKS by Kim Winters, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Simon and Schuster) They thought he was lazy, this boy who would take a book out of his back pocket to read at the end of each row he'd plow. In fact, bigger things were in store for this young dreamer who was destined to become out 16th president. Readers are treated to a homey glimpse of this hero's boyhood, leaning on his father's lap by the fireside as yarns were spun, splitting wood, shivering with his sister in a drafty log loft. It chronicles both the dark days (like when Abe's mother dies of "milk sickness" when he is nine) and exciting adventures (such as the great wrestling match between him and Jack Armstrong, which was met with cries of "Body slam! Body slam!" by my second grade listeners). The story stops where most others begin, as Lincoln takes his seat at the White House. The unpretentious illustrations are evocative of the period and contain many details that are springboards to discussion, such as what schools were like in pioneer times, and why Lincoln campaigned from a train. And don't forget, in honor of Lincoln's favorite pastime, celebrate his birthday by starting a penny drive fundraiser for your school library! (6 and up)

A BIG CHEESE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE: THE TRUE TALE OF A TREMENDOUS CHEDDAR by Candace Fleming, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Farrar Straus and Giroux) Jefferson wasn't the only big cheese in the White House in 1801, thanks to the town of Cheshire, Massachusetts. I liked the persistent undertone of the town "downer," Phineas Dobbs, throughout the story ("It can never be done!" "I told you it could never be done!") as the town sought to create a ridiculously enormous cheese, weighing 1,235 pounds! The success of the endeavor suggests that diligence is all that's really necessary to overcome cynicism and make ideas come to fruition...or is it cheesition? Kids will melt over this funny, exciting and true story. (6 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

1 comment:

The Teaching Enthusiast said...

I have enjoyed all of these reviews for books that tie into history...thanks for sharing them! I plan to look for them at the bookstore. I'm a HUGE fan of Patricia Polacco. In fact, all of the books that I have read by her have made me teary. They are soooo endearing!! By the way, I like your site's new look!! Thanks for your work!!


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