No doubt you know Rosemay Wells and her cannon of beautifully illustrated insightfully intelligent picture books, several of which star the timeless bunny siblings, Max and Ruby (who can take their place in line behind Frog and Toad and George and Martha when it comes to picture books that capture genuine prickly emotions and the difficult dilemmas that are part of life.) But, you may not know that Wells has written a handful of books for middle grade readers. In addition to her newest book, Lincoln and His Boys, she has written Red Moon at Sharpsburg, the story of India Moody who, while trying to get medicine to her sick father gets caught in the crossfire of the one of the Civil War's most most tragic and terrifying events, the Battle of Antietam. She also wrote the amazing biography Mary on Horseback: Three Mountain Stories which tell the story of three families who are helped by Mary Breckinridge, the first nurse to travel to the Appalachian Mountains and provide medical care to the isolated inhabitants living there. With muted pencil drawings by the magnificent Peter McCarty, author and illustrator of one of my favorite picture books, the Caldecott Honor winning cat and dog story, Hondo and Fabian, Well's interlocking short stories tell of the arrival of the Frontier Nursing Service through the eyes of the children she helped and remind readers that one person's passion can change the world.
With Lincoln and His Boys, Wells takes another poignant page from history, her inspiration for the story coming from a 200 word fragment written by Willie Lincoln about a trip taken with his father, Abe. The painterly, portrait-like illustrations of the the Lincolns by the gifted artist PJ Lynch suit the subject matter of this book perfectly. With their rich golds and browns, they convey the the seriousness of the times and the warmth of the family. Told in three chapters, "Willie, 1859," "Willie and Tad, 1861" and "Tad, 1862 - 1862," Wells captures moments from the lives of the Lincolns as seen through the eyes of their young sons. Above all else, this is the story of two sons and the profound love and respect they had for their father and he for them. These stories also illuminate the larger aspects of history that are unfolding during this time. While Mary Lincoln is portrayed as a loving if fretful mother, Abraham Lincoln is seen as a doting father who always finds a way to make time for his sons. He is infinitely accepting of who they are as children, never worrying about the parenting practice of the time that followed the simple rule: Children should be seen and not heard. As Well's writes in her author's note, "Throughout my reading [on Lincoln] I marveled at how kind Lincoln was with his sons. His boys could do no wrong. Willie and Tad were raised to have fun in the Victorian Era when fun, in public, especially for children, was frowned upon."
Because Lincoln's life is so thoroughly documented, all the incidents in Lincoln and His Boys are grounded in historical fact. No detail is imagined or invented except the dialogue and the circumstances in which it takes place. The book begins with the Lincoln's living in Springfield, IL. Willie and his father embark on an overnight trip to Chicago. Through conversations with his father and observations on the part of both boys, it is revealed that Lincoln has decided to run for President of the United States. While Lincoln tends to law and political business in Chicago. Willie observes "spiffed-up men with soft hands" who are constantly wanting to talk to Lincoln and taking up much of his time, a point which is made often in the book. Willie spends his time reading the Chicago Tribune while his father "commences two hours of lawyer work" at the Cook County Courthouse. At dinner that night in their hotel, Lincoln orders "sherbet Jenny Lind" for desert, telling Willie that his mother made him promise to take him to see the real Jenny Lind sing, for his own "edification." However, when Willie points out that a notice in the paper said that there would be a show of Chinese acrobats and jugglers at Metropolitan Hall, Lincoln, who "loves entertainments," buys tickets and father and son see both shows.
In her relatively short book, Wells authenticaly captures the feel of the time period and the real experience of the Lincoln boys through dialogue, the occasional colloquialism and an abundance of details. Willie's trip with his father is a bright time in his life but darker days are to come. While on the train to the White House after winning the election, Lincoln surprises the boys with what they think is a silly disguise. Aware of an assassination plot, Mr Pinkerton, head of security, has insisted that Lincoln take a faster train to Washington. As Lincoln explains it to his boys, there is "a lot of shicoonery" about. Once at the White House, Mary sets about updating it because there have been "too many bachelors in a row" occupying it. The boys find fast friends in Bud and Holly Taft and even build a fort on the roof. The Civil War breaks out, as does typhoid fever. Both boys become ill and, on the night of February 20, 1862, Willie succumbs to the illness. Wells does a sensitive yet honest job describing the intense grief that both parents experience upon this loss. And, while this is not the first or last time for mourning for this family, Wells focuses only on the months and years indicated in the chapter titles. Hopefully, readers will be inspired to seek out more information on the Lincolns and learn of their fates.
In the final chapter narrated by Tad, who's real name was Thomas, his father nicknaming him Tadpole at birth because of what he considered a resemblance, the Lincolns spend the summer in a cottage at the Soldier's Home and Tad's fascination with the military grows. There is the momentous visit to Richmond, VA in April of 1865 after the war has ended and, finally, Abraham Lincoln's last public address, given on April 11th, 1865, two days after the surrender of General Lee, from the balcony of the White House. This speech, which can be read by clicking here, was delivered with Lincoln's private secretary John Nicolay holding a candle for light and Tad at his father's feet, catching the pages of the speech as Lincoln finished with them. Rather than quote from the speech, Wells illustrates Lincoln's deep sense of empathy by focusing on his insistence that the band play "Dixie," which hasn't been heard in Washington for four years. As he tells Tad, "The crowd wants to rub the South's nose in the mud, but I won't let 'em, Taddie. I won't let 'em."
In a year when books on Abraham Lincoln are flooding the shelves, in the children's and adult departments of bookstores, it seems like a good time to read at least one of them. Rather than the sometimes dry biographies, give Rosemary Wells' and PJ Lynch's book a try. It captures moments in time, from a child's perspective, in a very momentous life.