I know, I started out the New Year by committing to weekly book reviews. I’m a little behind due to our vacation to the Everglades, which was, by the way, spectacular. But that’s for a future post. Today, however, in honor of the birthday of our sixteenth President, I’m reviewing a particularly poetic book about Abraham Lincoln’s childhood.
When Abraham Talked to the Trees, by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth. Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2000. Ages 5 and up.
This picture book, written in the vernacular of the rural South, illustrates that a young Abraham Lincoln learned to love books, writing and speaking during his boyhood, but it was far from easy. Farnsworth’s dream-like oil paintings depict a childhood filled with work and little time for study. But Abraham found it. Every night he read by candlelight, teaching himself to read, long after his sisters and brothers were asleep in their beds. When Lincoln’s father is asked to build a church, “Abraham obliged his pa alongside a passel of other men as the church took shape against the sky.” He watched and was impressed at how the preacher spoke. “It came to Abraham then that there was more to talking than talking.”
Many children will identify with Abraham’s struggle learning to read: he didn’t even have a teacher. As the author points out “school was a sometime thing.” When young Abraham memorizes Aesop’s fables his family listens to his recitations with rapt attention. But when they inevitably wander off, the young man continues, speaking to the trees, practicing the skill of oration that would serve him well during America’s troubled times.
I had the opportunity last spring to visit Lincoln’s library and museum in Springfield, Illinois. There is a life-sized room there, much like the one pictured in this book, depicting a young Abraham Lincoln reading into the wee hours of the night. His determination to read and later to speak with conviction was nurtured in these humble beginnings. This book can be a vehicle to inspire the child who yearns to accomplish something difficult. The goal may not be President. It may be as life-changing as learning to read. And Abraham struggling by candlelight can show the way.