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Pages

In A 'Dream,' Lincoln Checks In On State Of The Union

Oct 16, 2012
Originally published on October 17, 2012 10:48 am

With the country mired in a civil war, Abraham Lincoln had a lot on his mind, so it's not surprising that the 16th president experienced vivid, troubling dreams.

"He was haunted by his dreams," says author and illustrator Lane Smith. In one dream, Lincoln found himself aboard an indescribable vessel moving toward an indistinct shore, Smith tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "He had these dreams apparently several times before momentous events of the Civil War, and in fact he had it the night before he was assassinated."

Smith, a Caldecott award-winning author and illustrator, has written a children's book inspired by Lincoln's dream life. In Abe Lincoln's Dream, a little girl on a tour of the White House meets the troubled ghost of the 16th president in the Lincoln bedroom — and she sets out to help answer his questions about how America turned out.

Though Smith is best known for his work in books like The Stinky Cheese Man, Abe Lincoln's Dream isn't his first foray into historical reimagining. He previously wrote John, Paul, George & Ben, a book about the Founding Fathers as children (which employs a healthy disregard for historical truth).

"I really enjoyed exploring that visual landscape of broadsides and 18th century illustration; so I was looking for another president to do just purely out of visual concerns," Smith says. "I stumbled on this little story of Abe Lincoln's dream, and it gave me an opportunity to study 19th century political cartoons and lithographs."


Interview Highlights

On Abraham Lincoln's troubled ghost

"My story ... takes place in the modern-day White House, and there's a little girl who gets separated from her tour group. And she winds up in the Lincoln bedroom, where she encounters Lincoln's ghost. And he's pacing the floor, and he's troubled by this dream, and he is not sure what it meant. 'Cause at the time that he left this Earth — 1865 — we had the Civil War, and he wasn't sure if the states were united and if there was equality, so he has these questions that are haunting him. So the little girl takes it upon herself to say, 'You know, I think we're in pretty good shape,' and they go on a little tour of modern-day United States, and they have this conversation." [Click here to read about the moment the little girl meets Lincoln's ghost.]

On the dark, angular style of his illustrations

"I've never subscribed to that theory ... that all children's books should be for all kids. When I was a kid, I liked odd and weird things, and I think I would've been insulted if someone gave me a book with, you know, happy little bunnies and a book on feelings or whatever. So throughout my career, I've always tried to, I guess, challenge the kid and do modern-looking artwork, to use a hackneyed term, I guess."

On other presidents he might consider as subjects for a future book

"You know, it's funny, with the topic of bullying in schools ... gotta do something with Teddy Roosevelt. You know: bully [pulpit]. But I really like the Founding Fathers. I love that period, with the Colonial garb and those powdered wigs. I'd love to revisit that sometime."

On what his books teach kids about the presidents

"I love the presidents just because I remember looking at their images in the classroom, but I would not consider myself to be any sort of educator. Mostly I'm in it for the laughs."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Many men have portrayed Abraham Lincoln. There was Gregory Peck...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BLUE AND THE GRAY")

GREGORY PECK: (as Abraham Lincoln) Four score and seven years ago, our father's...

SIEGEL: Sam Waterston...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS")

SAM WATERSTON: (as Abraham Lincoln) Now we are engaged in a great civil war...

SIEGEL: Here's Daniel Day Lewis as we heard in previews the forthcoming movie "Lincoln."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LINCOLN")

DANIEL DAY LEWIS: (as Abraham Lincoln) The fate of human dignity in our hands.

SIEGEL: And now, Lane Smith.

LANE SMITH: (Reading) Do you know how long a man's legs should be, he asked? Long enough to reach the floor.

SIEGEL: Lane Smith is a Caldecott Award-winning author and illustrator of children's books. And that reading is from his latest book, "Abe Lincoln's Dream." He joins us now to talk about it.

Welcome to the program.

SMITH: Thanks.

SIEGEL: How did you go from "The Stinky Cheese Man" to the 16th president of the United States?

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: Well, a few years ago, I did a book about the Founding Fathers as children, John, Paul, George and Ben. And I really enjoyed exploring that visual landscape of broadsides and 18th century illustrations. So I was looking for another president to do just purely out of visual concerns. And so, I stumbled on this little story about Abe Lincoln's dream and it gave me an opportunity to study 19th century political cartoons and lithographs, and explore that visual side.

SIEGEL: Now, in your earlier book about the Founding Fathers, you wrote with a wonderful disregard for historical truth and then at the end of the book, pointed out what was true and what wasn't true. In this case, the story of Abraham Lincoln's dream is true.

SMITH: That's right. Most of us know he had premonitions. He was haunted by his dreams. One of my favorite dreams of his was the one where he described himself on an indescribable vessel moving toward an indistinct shore. He had this dream apparently several times before momentous events of the Civil War. And in fact, he had it the night before he was assassinated.

So in my story, it takes place in the modern day White House and there's a little girl who gets separated from her tour group and she winds up in the Lincoln bedroom, where she encounters Lincoln's ghost. And he's pacing the floor and he's troubled by this dream. And he is not sure what it meant 'cause at the time that he left this earth, 1865, we had the Civil War and he wasn't sure if the states were united and if there was equality, so he had these questions that are haunting him.

So the little girl takes it upon herself to say, you know, I think we're in pretty good shape and they go on a little tour of modern day United States and they have this conversation. By the end, we have a revisit to the dream, but this time the little girl, Quincy, is having the dream. And instead of Lincoln being on this troubled sea in a haunted dilapidated boat, he's on this glorious river queen steamship and he's, you know, heading towards the sunrise.

And it's the first time in the book you actually see him smiling and happy.

SIEGEL: Lane, you've given away the whole story here.

SMITH: Well, they don't need to buy the book now. They could probably just steal it off the internet. No, don't do that.

SIEGEL: No. The style, first of all, of your illustrations here, pretty dark, very angular, quite detailed, not all together typical of children's book illustrations.

SMITH: Well, thanks. I take that as a compliment. I've never subscribed to that theory about that all children's books should be for all kids. When I was a kid, I liked odd and weird things and I think I would have been insulted if someone gave me a book with, you know, happy little bunnies and a book on feelings or whatever. So, throughout my career, I've always tried to, I guess, challenge the kid and do modern-looking artwork, to use a hackneyed term, I guess.

SIEGEL: Well, given two books now that involve - one, some of the Founding Fathers and now Lincoln, and also FDR makes a cameo in this book as well, how...

SMITH: Reagan's dog, Rex, makes a little cameo as well.

SIEGEL: Right. How serious are you about history and imparting an idea of the presidents or American heroes to young readers?

SMITH: I love the presidents just because I remember looking at their images in the classroom, but I would not consider myself to be any sort of educator. Mostly, I'm in it for the laughs.

SIEGEL: Do you have a president in mind who might be good for a few more laughs in a future book?

SMITH: I think, you know, it's funny with the topic of bullying in schools, got to do something with Teddy Roosevelt, you know, a bully. But I really like the Founding Fathers. I love that period, that colonial garb and the powdered wigs. I'd love to revisit that sometime.

SIEGEL: Lane Smith, thank you very much for talking with us today.

SMITH: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Lane Smith's new book for youngsters is called "Abe Lincoln's Dream." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.