This unusual biography of Abraham Lincoln frames his life as a series of ten decisions, in which the reader is invited to participate.
It’s Up to You, Abe Lincoln by Tom and Leila Hirschfeld. Crown, 2018, 287 pages.
Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12
Recommended for: ages 10-14
Say you’ve just been elected President of the United States, and the southern half of the nation is threatening to pull away and become independent. The rebels have even trained their guns on a U.S. fort in Charleston harbor and say they’ll blow it out of the water if the commander doesn’t surrender. What do you do? 1) order a surrender, 2) send food and ammo, 3) send reinforcements, 4) invade Charleston by land and sea. Pick one.
Not so easy being president, is it? Especially under dark clouds of war that you wish desperately to avoid. How Abraham Lincoln made this choice, and the other crucial decisions that led him to this point, make a unique framework for a biography, especially when the story is told entirely in second person. The earliest decisions are personal: whether to honor his debts and whether to propose to Miss Mary Todd. Soon the decisions will be political, and then historic. Some choices didn’t seem to work to his advantage and some, like the order to suspend Habeas Corpus, are controversial even today. All contributed to his character and the nation’s destiny.
Focusing on ten key decisions means skimming over some aspects of Lincoln’s life while focusing on details, like backroom political deals and matters of state, that young readers may have little patience for. The casual writing style and jokey illustrations (like historical photos with speech balloons) don’t always charm, and the second-person narrative takes some getting used to. But there are many pluses: Sidebars containing quotes and bullet points provide more information, and for readers who lose track of the many historical figures, there’s a list of Who’s Who in the appendix. Also from the appendix: a selection of speech excerpts, a sampling of Lincoln’s humor, and “What Would Abe Think?” speculation about his view of modern inventions and political movements. Another plus: while reflecting on Lincoln’s life at the end of the narrative, the authors expound on six qualities that made the man. Perhaps, not coincidentally, “these qualities also represent what makes America so Special.” Abe was Self-reliant, Practical, Principled, Generous, Egalitarian, and Democratic. A fitting way to wrap up this unusual biography.
Cautions: Some quoted profanity
Overall rating: 4.25 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 4.5
- Artistic value: 4