In 2009 at her blog nestled over at the online version of the New York Times, illustrator, designer and author Maira Kalman penned and illustrated a moving tribute to Abraham Lincoln, a post that was read and loved by many. 

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In early January, Nancy Paulsen Books (an imprint of Penguin) released the picture-book adaptation of that post, geared at children. Looking at Lincoln is a loving tribute to the former president, and it’s rendered in Kalman’s clear-eyed, honest manner. And it’s all topped off with her wonderfully offbeat flair.

The book opens as if Kalman has just pulled up a chair next to us to tell us a tale: “One day, while walking through the park on my way to breakfast I saw a very tall man. He reminded me of someone, but I could not think who.” Later, in a coffee shop, she pays for her breakfast with a $5 bill and realizes that it’s Lincoln that had come to mind.

looking at lincoln

Ever curious, she heads to the library to find out more about the man. After staring at photos of his intriguing face, she reads about his life and chronicles it in this picture-book biography – from his birth in a log cabin in 1809 to his death at age 56.

But it’s everything in between that and all the little notes and questions she weaves in and around the facts of his life that make this book shine. Kalman includes details that will fascinate children (and, OK, grown-ups alike), such as the fact that, as a young man, he was kicked in head by a mule and then “woke up and grew up and decided to become a lawyer. (He did like to argue.)”

When writing about his wife, she asks, “I wonder if Mary and Abraham had nicknames for each other. Did she call him Linky? Did he call her Little Plumpy? Maybe.” Often, these questions are offset in a different, more pronounced type, sometimes playing with color. When noting that Lincoln wore a tall hat and wrote notes to stuff inside them, Kalman writes “what was he thinking about?”—with “thinking” in a bold red color to emphasize his keen mind.

Kalman is known for her vibrant gouache illustrations, but she really doesn’t hold back here. Very few illustrations rest on white space; most are lit up by orange, turquoise or light green backgrounds. And her palette is all the more stunning when we get to one of the final spreads. After having noted his tragic death—and doing so with such tender details that prove to be quite moving (“Murdered by a wretched man who did not want slavery to end. Lincoln had been rocking in this chair. People carried him across the street to the home of a friend.”)—Kalman notes that he will live forever. It’s this spread, lit up like the morning with cherry blossoms, which will give you goosebumps.

In the end, she notes that readers can see him at his memorial in Washington, D.C. Next to a glowing illustration of the memorial, she writes, “And you can look into his beautiful eyes. Just look.”

The end. A lovely ending to a loving book. 

Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.

Looking at Lincoln. Copyright 2012 by Maira Kalman. Image reproduced by permission of the publisher Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin, New York.