Title: Abe Lincoln's Dream
Author/Illustrator: Lane Smith
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press (2012)
I've been wanting to write about this book for some time. When I first came to Illinois, I was fairly lonely and found solace in the local public library where I would borrow audio books and drive around. One of the books I listened to taught me that the state where I lived was the land of Abraham Lincoln (who knew??), so I learned about this president as I drove around in traffic looking at the very many number plates that bear his likeness.
I had never expected to live in America, so suddenly doing so in the simultaneous realization that I didn't know very many people here at all was a bit of a shock. Both sides of our family and all of our friends were now in ridiculous time zones, and I had been taken from a busy job that I'd fought hard to get. For now it was just me, numerous number plate Lincolns, and an audiobook entitled Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness.
Sharing my depression with President Lincoln and hearing how it could fuel my greatness has made me something of a collector of Lincoln picture books. There are a lot, and I don't buy every one I see, but this one asked me to buy it and so I graciously agreed. I knew about a dream President Lincoln had told people about - it was a recurring dream and he'd had it the night before he was assassinated. The story was interesting to me and so I was interested to see how it could be a children's book.
Lane Smith has a very stylized illustration style that suits President Lincoln quite well, especially when you consider that in this story, the subject is Ghost Lincoln. The long, pale, gaunt face is perfect for the troubled former President, and the many angles in this book deftly draw the eye from one side of the page to the other. The canvas for each picture seems cracked, giving the pictures an antique feel, and the occasional burst of colour breaks through the muted tones and makes the whole piece visually appealing, keeping the reader moving forward through the story.
A strange little quirk of this story is the inclusion of dogs of past Presidents who refused to go into the room where Lincoln's ghost hung out. The dogs of past Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan are shown slinking away from the fateful room. Since the book was published in 2012 I also looked for President Barack Obama's dog Bo in this line-up but was disappointed. Bo was the only POTUS Pet I had heard of, and it took me a while to search out whose dogs Fala, Yuki and Rex were. Nonetheless, I felt the dogs offered an enticing way for children to engage in the story, and an opportunity for parents and children to find out together.
The story goes that a little girl named Quincy who is on a tour of the Whitehouse finds Lincoln's ghost, leaning over the Gettysburg Address. He looked very worried, which makes Quincy feel sorry for him so she attempts to talk to him and cheer him up. Children have an amazing talent for seeking out those who need them, and I just love how Quincy pursues Ghost Lincoln (despite his attempts to walk through walls to escape from her). I also like President Lincoln's attempts at humor, which I also recognized from non-fiction accounts of his life. Depressed people often shirk away the blues with a joke, putting a brave face on what only small children can see through. The pages that contain jokes also contain the aforementioned bursts of colour, a metaphor for how we all can affect our mood through human interaction.
Quincy takes Ghost Lincoln outside of the Whitehouse for the first time in years, and shows him how much the United States has changed. The two friends take a flying tour over the land: Lincoln did the flying and Quincy answered the questions. Here's where the text becomes problematic for me. "Are the states united?" asks Ghost Lincoln. "Yes, that worked out fine", replies Quincy. "And equality for all?" asks Lincoln. The little girl's answer: "That's working out too," she said. "It's getting better all the time". This is where I did a double take and wondered, is equality working out? It might be getting better when compared with slavery and the civil rights era over time, but is it getting better all the time? In addition, is it a bit ironic that a little African American girl seems to be giving President Lincoln the A-OK on the issue of equality?
Visually, I don't think the picture gives any easy answers to this question. The Statue of Liberty image is partially in shadow, and the boy in the window doesn't look particularly happy or unhappy. You can only see the shadow of Ghost Lincoln and Quincy, but from previous pages you know that she is African American, and here she is, clearly telling President Lincoln that it's all working out. On the next page, she does admit to some "fussing and fighting" among fellow men, but the little graphic of a chair being thrown out the window of congress does little to elaborate on what the fussing and fighting might be about. While it may be a deliberate choice not to make the conflict seem too severe, I think the weakness in this book lies in its whitewashing of not only black history, but the current state of institutionalized racism in the USA.
Back to those dogs. I wondered if the introduction of Bo as a presidential pet might have illustrated that yes, now the United States does have a black President, things have come a long way since Lincoln was assassinated by someone who would rather kill and be killed than let slaves be free. I wondered also if the words could have been tweaked slightly, something like "It's getting better all the time, although we've still got a way to go" (take out the reference to "working out"). I freely admit that I don't have any answers for this book - I am filled with only questions.
At the end of the book, Lincoln sails away on the boat from his dreams, and he is smiling. He has confirmed for himself that things are good in America. The founding fathers would be proud. America has planted a flag on the moon. Lincoln has only very briefly touched on equality (which was kind of a big deal for him during his Presidency) and flown quickly forward onto safer topics. I feel like this book collaborates with safely complacent white people to tell a convenient story to children, that racism is "working out" in America. It's a missed opportunity, and one that makes me sad.
At the very least I do think this book is a call to a conversation. I like the way the humor of the text lends itself to Lane Smith's art. I like that some of the elements of the book seem based in past evidence, such as Lincoln's dream itself. I would hope that readers of this book are able to take from this book what they want from this story - and something more. I hope that others (like Lincoln himself) have questions, and that talking about this book with kids will help them deepen their understanding of an imperfect history and a troubled president.
An Australian who lived in Japan with my bicultural family now living in the USA, I believe that there are more different realities than there are books to be written.