Thursday, May 3, 2012

2013 Contenders: Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass, by Russell Freedman

Image courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Let this be said -- no one writes history for children as well as Russell Freedman, and he's got a stack of awards to prove it (the Newbery Medal, three Newbery Honors, a Sibert Honor, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, and the National Humanities Medal). In his newest book, Freedman returns to the subject of his Newbery winner, Lincoln: A Photobiography, and adds nuance and insight by bringing in another key figure of the time, abolitionist leader (and former slave) Frederick Douglass.

Despite the somewhat awkward title, Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship is an exceptional book. Freedman is a master of using simple language to communicate with children in a way they will understand, but without talking down to them. He respects his audience, and maybe that's why his work is so successful. Here, he takes a distant, confusing moment in history and, through the intertwining narratives of his protagonists, makes it easy for his audience to understand.

I'd recommend it in a heartbeat to any kid with even a marginal interest in US History. As a Newbery contender, I'm less certain. It's been ages since the Newbery committee recognized more than one nonfiction title in any given year -- unless one chooses to think of poetry or folklore as nonfiction, I think the last time was 1951, when Elizabeth Yates won the award for Amos Fortune, Free Man, and Jeanette Eaton's Gandhi: Fighter Without a Sword, and Clara Ingram Judson's Abraham Lincoln, Friend of the People both honored. With that in mind, I don't think Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass is as distinguished of a contribution to children's literature as Moonbird. You can make the argument that Freedman is a better prose stylist than Phillip Hoose, and I might even agree with you, but I felt like Moonbird did a superior job in relating its subject to the world of human emotions and experience, even though it's naturally more difficult to do that with migratory shorebirds than the civil war and the end of slavery. Indeed, if I have any criticism to make of Lincoln & Douglass, it's that I wish it had spent a little more time exploring why what these two men did 150 years ago still has resonance and significance today.

Again, this isn't to say that I don't think highly of Lincoln & Douglass, only that I think there is a stronger contender for the one "allotted" Newbery nonfiction slot. The committee may feel differently though, and the Sibert committee may find this title especially interesting as well.

Publication in June through Clarion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

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