Pros: Charming story about why Lincoln grew a beard
Cons: Glosses over most of the historical context
It isn't always the great, earth-shattering events that make history so fascinating. Some of the best stories are found in the details of everyday people who never made the Whos Who books of their times.
Children's author and illustrator Karen Winnick found one such delightful story in two letters exchanged between an 11-year-old girl and a candidate for president. These letters became the basis for her picture book, Mr. Lincoln's Whiskers.
The story is a fun story of almost no historical significance, but one that appeals to the trivia lovers and to any child who ever had an idea that others laughed at.
It's the story of Grace Bedell, a young 11-year-old lady in New York who really wanted to see Abraham Lincoln be elected president. Her father brought her a poster, which she studied with all the devotion that pre-teens of my generation gave to Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson.
But she thought he looked awfully sad. Perhaps, she thought, he'd look less sad if he grew whiskers. So she wrote him a letter telling him that women would tease their husbands into voting for him if he were to grow a beard. She mailed off the letter without telling her family--and especially not her brother Levant who mocked her for her devotion to Lincoln.
Lincoln, however, did not laugh at the little girl, but wrote her back, thanking her for her letter and saying he worried that if he grew a beard, people would think it an affectation. After he was elected president, he took a train from Springfield to Washington D.C., making a stop in Grace's town of Westfield. There she would get a rather delightful surprise.
Winnick tells the story in a straightforward manner, reprinting each of the letters word-for-word and then providing photocopies of the originals at the end of the book. Grace had seven siblings which Winnick names for us, but she manages to keep them in the background so that they don't compete with the main story. Only two of her siblings ever speak, and one is set up as the antagonist.
The oil paintings to a nice job of capturing the period and making it pretty plain that Grace comes from a middle- or upper-class family. She also does a nice job in one of the paintings of hiding the hands of most of the children so that she doesn't have to get into any lengthy explanations about what gift the father bought for each child. After all, as readers we really only care about what Grace got--the poster of Mr. Lincoln.
In Westfield, there are actually two sculptures, one of Lincoln and one of Grace, commemorating this exchange and the story of why Mr. Lincoln grew a beard. Of the original letters, one is at the Detroit Public Library; the other--Lincoln's letter to Grace--is in the hands of a private collector.
This 32-page book is meant for young readers, but it is a charming story that is appealing for any history buff.