Like any traditional biography, Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer take their readers on a journey in their picture book biography, Lincoln Tells a Joke, as they present facts about the life of Abraham Lincoln. Much like any other informational book would do, Lincoln Tells a Joke informs readers that Lincoln was born in a log cabin, studied to become a lawyer, married the sometimes moody Mary, was elected president in 1860, passionately objected the idea of slavery, and eventually led the country through one of its toughest times to date. However, all of this information is presented with a very unique twist! Interspersed throughout the text are quotes to highlight how Lincoln used his sense of humor and wit to overcome trials in his life. Filled with quirky anecdotes and jokes told by Lincoln himself, readers will get to know the young adult that he truly was growing up and how humor contributed to the great man that he would eventually become.
Author Kathleen Krull does an excellent job of presenting her words in an objective manner and not talking down to the reader. Young readers will be challenged to define words like, “harsh,” “bleak,” “tactics,” and “merriment.” In addition, Krull’s passion for the subject is evident in the research she did to find direct quotes from Lincoln. These quotes, often presented in the form of jokes, are presented in a contrasting flowery font, which helps them to stand out textually to young readers. Lincoln Tells a Joke can easily be read in one sitting. Therefore, reference aids are neither used nor necessary to help organize the text.
Illustrations are presented in an exaggerated acrylic style. Often, Lincoln is seen with arms and legs that are extremely disproportionate to the rest of his six foot-four inch body. The artistic exaggeration, however, is not overbearing and seems to fit well with the overall serious yet humorous tone set by the text. School Library Journal points out that, “Innerst’s colorful and unconventional acrylic illustrations cover the entire page and are the perfect complement to both the text and the subject matter, making this a standout biography.”
A sources list is presented in the back of the book and mostly contains reputable books written between 1888 and 2003. Additionally, an author’s note located in the back of the book informs readers that “Lincoln’s jokes in this book are from collections compiled by a variety of people, often after his death. Some of his clever remarks were passed on by eyewitnesses; some are second-hand, third-hand, or further removed.” These elements, in addition to knowing that Kathleen Krull has written numerous award-winning picture book biographies, can help the reader conclude that the information presented is accurate.
Lincoln Tells a Joke sends a well-rounded message that Lincoln had flaws and experienced real life problems. Throughout his life, Lincoln was very unpopular, struggled on and off with depression, and fought feelings of self-consciousness about his homely appearance. Knowing all of this, readers will learn to respect Lincoln even more as they realize that behind the presidential appearance, Lincoln was a human being like anyone else. In his personal conversations, he often joked about outhouses and flatulence, and commented that during his time in the military he survived, “a good many bloody battles – with mosquitoes” (Krull 2010, 11). Just like so many do, Lincoln used humor to get through the tough times.
Because picture book biographies allow the text to be read in just one sitting, creating a group timeline of Abraham Lincoln’s life would be an excellent activity to use in a library event and then display in the library afterwards. After reading Lincoln Tells a Joke, the group could discuss each event that happened in Lincoln’s life. This would allow participants to strengthen their sequencing skills and would lead well into an event being assigned to each child. On a single sheet of paper, each child would write about that event and illustrate it. After each child is done, the group could come together to create the timeline. An example timeline can be viewed at http://www.lincoln-youngreaders.com/timeline5.html. An example single entry is outlined below.
Lincoln Sees Slaves
“Lincoln grew to be a tall and strong teenager. In 1828, at 19, he helped take a flatboat down the Ohio River to New Orleans. There Lincoln saw for the first time slaves being sold in the marketplace. Lincoln would work to end slavery for the rest of his life.”
Lincoln Tells a Joke was honored as a Smithsonian’s 2010 Notable Book for Children and has been recommended by Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal.
Berwick Academy. 2013. “The Life of Abraham Lincoln: An Illustrated Timeline for Young Readers.” http://www.lincoln-youngreaders.com/index.html (Accessed October 25, 2013).
Books in Print. Texas Woman’s University. Accessed October 25, 2013.
Kathleenkrull.com. n.d. “Other Biographies.” http://www.kathleenkrull.com/otherbio.html# lincoln (Accessed October 25, 2013).
Krull, Kathleen & Paul Brewer. 2010. Lincoln Tells a Joke: How Laughter Saved the President (and the Country). Ill. by Stacy Innerst. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0152066390