April 15, 1865 – Death of President Lincoln; Review of “Looking at Lincoln” by Maira Kalman

On this day in 1865 President Lincoln was declared dead at 7:22 in the morning, having been shot the night before at Ford’s Theater by John Wilkes Booth. It is hard not to be fascinated by the persona of Lincoln, and there are those who even fall in love with him a bit, such as Maira Kalman.

Maira Kalman, self-portrait

Maira Kalman, self-portrait

I am a big fan of the art of Maira Kalman. Her style is unmistakable – she is a cartoon artist, painter, writer, and journalist who is at once whimsical, colorful, and witty, and a delight for both the eye and the intellect. She is especially known for her “visual reporting” as well as her iconic covers for the “New Yorker” magazine. She combines realism with fantasy and commentary all in the same pictures, bringing to mind artists as diverse as Ludwig Bemelmans and Marc Chagall, and yet she is always identifiable as herself.

Some of her books are labeled as for “children” and some for “adults” but I can’t imagine the former not providing entertainment for the latter. This one, Looking at Lincoln, is no exception.

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Looking at Lincoln is narrated by a little girl who is curious about Lincoln and goes to the library to learn more about him. She shares what she learns about his life in the pages that follow. This is no dry recitation of facts, however. She also gives her thoughts and impressions of what she finds out, and shares questions she has about Lincoln that must go unanswered, thus introducing the idea that history is more nuanced and complex than we can know.

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This book was an outgrowth of Kalman’s visit to the Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia which sponsored a large exhibition on Lincoln in 2009, and still maintains an online archive of Lincolniana. There, she said, she “fell in love with A. Lincoln.”

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Kalman exhibits an extraordinary talent for summarizing the most important aspects of Lincoln’s life in just 32 pages, while still focusing on incidents that kids would find interesting. The text is funny, informative, and inspiring. Her illustrations freely mix fantasy and reality in vibrant happy colors that fill the pages.

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Near the end of the book, she writes:

Abraham Lincoln will live forever. And if you go to Washington, D.C. in the spring you can walk through the cherry blossoms and visit him.”

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She continues:

At his Memorial you can read the words he wrote near the end of the war. ‘…With malice toward none, with charity for all.’ And you can look into his beautiful eyes. Just look.”

The back matter contains notes on sources. In addition, The Gettysburg Address is reprinted on the front and back inside covers.

Evaluation: This is an outstanding resource about Lincoln for readers of all ages.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2012.

Note: You can hear Maira Kalman talking about how she got inspired to write this book, and reading an excerpt here.

And if Maira Kalman could actually meet with Lincoln in real life? On her blog, she explains what she would do:

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