OK, I’ll admit it. I’m in the tank for Abraham Lincoln. I love the guy. I really do. I’ve read stacks of books and visited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC twice. I’ve made a pilgrimage to Gettysburg (where I stole a rock), and watched Ken Burns’ The Civil War more times than I care to admit. I’ve not yet seen Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, or Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, but when I do, I’m sure they’ll be welcome additions to my reference library of Lincolnalia.
I am also in the tank for Lane Smith, the brilliant illustrator of The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, The Stinky Cheese Man, Spooky ABC, It’s a Book, and Grandpa Green, among many other contemporary classics of children’s literature.
It goes without saying, that a book about Abraham Lincoln by Lane Smith is a slam-dunk, and yet Abe Lincoln’s Dream is not really about Lincoln the man, but the fruits he laid seed to more than 100 years ago in the United States. My sister picked up this book for me on a recent trip to Arizona. She was peripherally aware of my fondness for Lincoln, and not at all familiar with my illustrative infatuation with Smith. Hats off to her. Stove-pipe hat off to her, I mean. It’s not easy to please my persnickety tastes, but Abe Lincoln’s Dream satiates in every way, from the inventive layouts and old-timey typefaces (thanks to Molly Leach, Smith’s long-time collaborator and partner), to the conception of Lincoln himself, a worry of a man built of vertical lines and furrowed brow. Smith’s books are increasingly atypical, at least in the illustrative sense, but the virtuosity and visual playfulness abide. His illustrations always amuse, always elevate, and Abe Lincoln’s Dream is nothing less than a book about elevation; of a people, there is no doubt, but also of the reader, and a couple of characters who travel the winding paths of history all the way to the moon and back.
There are countless books about Abraham Lincoln. Most are biographical in nature, the high points familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in American history. Just the sort of thing, in other words, that can sound dry and overly didactic in a kids book. Lane Smith does something different. We are introduced to the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, pacing the floors of the White House, ruminating over a recurring dream, pensive about the fragile state of the union after his death in 1865. Are the states united? Is there equality for all? Complex questions answered simply by a young African-American girl named Quincy, who has wandered away from her tour. The tall and the small play a game of verbal pitch and catch; questions posed, Quincy’s matter of fact reassurances that things are indeed better, and getting better all the time. In Abe Lincoln’s Dream, Lane Smith honours the legacy of the man who made a nation infinitely more humane, and he does it in a way that is both joyful and visually stunning.
“It’s always the same. I’m on a ship sailing for some shore I know not where.”
Using pen & ink, oil, and digital manipulation, Smith creates a seamless collage of bold geometry and whimsical characterization. There is a lot going on, but the page is never cluttered, thanks, in part, to the subdued colours throughout. The exception is the brilliant red of the rose garden in an illustration depicting ghost-Lincoln high stepping out of the White House for the first time, with curly-haired Quincy in tow. Smith’s graphic approach to the historical imagery impresses but does not overwhelm, a considerable feat when monuments such the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore occupy the same space as a tiny girl and a spindly-legged man. A subtle application of minute cracks in the background creates an effect not unlike the surface of an old painting or photograph; a reminder, perhaps, that these are glimpses into the past, but also the present and the future. Or not. Like all Lane Smith Books, the illustrations are a feast for the eye and the mind; informing the narrative but also stand-alone works of art. This, for me, is the essence of great illustration. There is always more to discover; pleasures revealed on the second, third or twentieth viewing.
In the current polarized climate of American politics, it’s as if the civil war is still being fought, metaphorically speaking. Red state vs blue state. Cranks spewing ignorance on every street corner (otherwise known as Fox News.) Even the odd threat to secede from the union, which is as preposterous as it is insanely funny (in a schadenfreude sort of way.) And yet..in the long, long shadow of Lincoln stands people like Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, and a little girl named Quincy, who may be fictional, but as Smith so beautifully and movingly suggests in Abe Lincoln’s Dream, is the sweet embodiment of a great man’s dream. I may be Canadian, but I am uplifted, in every sense of the word by these two Americans.
I really, really hope that Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter doesn’t disappoint…
Lane Smith is a four-time recipient of the New York Times Best Illustrated Book award and a two-time Caldecott Honor award recipient, most recently for Grandpa Green. In 2012, he was named a Carle Honor Artist for lifelong innovation in the field of children’s picture books.
Abe Lincoln’s Dream by Lane Smith, published by Roaring Brook Press, 2012
Previously drooled over:
The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders, illustrations by Lane Smith
Spooky ABC by Merriam illustrations by Lane Smith