From the mailbag, Mark in Chicago writes:
“I’m really enjoying your First Books segment on your blog, and I’m wondering: Since you’re a biographer, what would your ‘first biography’ be?”
Thanks for the question, Mark. When I was in second grade, I was given a collection of hardcover books called “Step-Up Books.” This was a series of about twenty non-fiction books for kids, with titles like Birds Do The Strangest Things (with an owl on the cover, peering at you with an upside-down head) and The Story of Flight, which pretty much sums it up. There were also a number of books about prominent Americans, including John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. But the book I liked the most, and still remember best, is Meet Abraham Lincoln.
Author Barbara Cary does a fine job with the subject matter, and hits all the highs of Lincoln’s life in a style aimed squarely at young readers, even addressing the Civil War in easy-as-pie terms. But I was equally as taken with the artwork, by the brilliant Jack Davis, working in his familiar “bigfoot” style that was perfectly suited for the gawky 16th president. Together, the text and art were in perfect syncopation, neither getting in the way of the other, and I read and re-read this book more times than I can remember, filing away the moments Cary had so carefully chosen to bring Lincoln to life, while matching Davis’ thickly-inked and cross-hatched art with its place in the narrative.
I haven’t read the book in decades — and my original copy of it is long gone — but three moments from the book still stay with me. Here’s young Abe trying to comfort his sister, following the death of their mother, with a raccoon that I was dying to pet:
Next is Lincoln with Union General Ulysses S. Grant, whose cigar you can practically smell:
And finally, the picture that’s stayed with me my entire life — President Lincoln at his desk in the White House, trying to hold the Union together during the darkest hours of the Civil War:
Really, it doesn’t get much better than that.
To me, Meet Abraham Lincoln is a biography doing everything a great biography should do: educating while entertaining. For that reason, Meet Abraham Lincoln holds the high honor not only of being my very First Biography, but also the First Book To Show Me That Non-fiction Could Be Dramatic. And indeed it is.
Holy smokes! I need to find a copy of this book — that Jack Davis art is amazing!