Know what picture book I’ve heard a lot about this year that I hadn’t seen a copy of myself until recently? (Thankfully, a dear friend sent me a copy for a birthday gift.) Early this year, Nancy Paulsen Books released Maira Kalman’s Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything. I kept hearing and reading very glowing remarks about it from friends and colleagues. And my house is swimming in new picture books and F&Gs (what are, essentially, picture book galleys), but there are some books that fall through the cracks for me that I just don’t see. And this was one of them. (We will pretend that it’s not at all true that I’ve yet to read Paul O. Zelinsky’s Z is for Moose from 2012. I KNOW! I just haven’t gotten to it. No blogger is perfect. “Library trip,” I just wrote on my calendar. I shall fix this.)
Now, I’m a fan of Kalman’s books. Just last month, I wrote here at Kirkus about Girls Standing on Lawns, her collaboration with Daniel Handler and the Museum of Modern Art. I don’t intend for it to be the Maira Show over here at my weekly columns (though I’m enough of a fan of her books and art to think that wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all), but those people praising this new picture book biography of Thomas Jefferson? They’re on to something. So, here I am writing about her again.
The book takes a look at Jefferson’s personality, passions, and major accomplishments as a founding father of America and as President. The artwork is all Kalman—bright gouache paintings in her singular, exuberant style. (Throughout the book, there’s nearly every shade of pink under the sun, some spreads sunnier than others.) Kalman is a gifted visual storyteller. But it’s the text here that is particularly noteworthy.
With narration that encourages contemplation about the complexity of the subject matter at hand, she portrays Jefferson with an arresting honesty. On the one hand, he was deeply interested in books, languages, philosophy, architecture, gardening, art, music, and so much more. “He had a good life, full of work and love,” she writes. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and championed democracy and equality.
But the same man, Kalman writes, who described slavery as an “abomination that must end” owned about 150 slaves. “The monumental man had monumental flaws” she lays out matter-of-factly. All of Kalman’s wise word choices here carry great weight. In discussing the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson’s words on “unalienable Rights,” she adds that it would be a long time before all Americans were treated equally but that this ideal on which our country was founded is “still strived for today.” Not an ideal we as a society consistently put into action, mind you, because sadly, we don’t, even in the 21st century. But one we strive for.
She fills her description of Jefferson’s life and Monticello home with the types of details that will delight young readers, all in an accessible and conversational tone: the guesstimated number of freckles on his face, the number of windows (76!) in Monticello “to let in light and air,” the types of peas he grew in his beloved garden, the kinds of pudding at his dining room table, and the fact that his tombstone epigraph didn’t list him as the third President of the United States. Once again noting the atrocities of slavery, Kalman writes that it was slaves who cooked up all those puddings. There are no two ways about it: “Jefferson may have been a kind master, but it was still a horror.”
This is a book that trusts children, giving them all sides of the American luminary (“optimistic and complex and tragic and wrong and courageous,” Kalman writes) and allowing space for them to ponder his profound contradictions.
It’s a powerful portrait of a complicated man. Not to be missed.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: LIFE, LIBERTY, AND THE PURSUIT OF EVERYTHING. Copyright © 2014 by Maira Kalman. Published by Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Group, New York. Spread reproduced by permission of the publisher.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.