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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Ask any schoolchild who their idea of a great president is - any adult, for that matter - chances are they'll say Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is the subject of a whole new flood of biography, studies and appreciations as we approach the 200th anniversary of his birth. There are also many books for children.

One of them, in particular, stood out to our ambassador to the world of children's literature, a man of considerable stature himself, also from Illinois, Daniel Pinkwater. Daniel, thanks so much for being with us.

DANIEL PINKWATER: Scott, Lincoln Schminken. If we'd have had Governor Blagojevich back in those days, the whole sucession of things could have been settled without a shot being fired.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Yeah. How much do you want for it, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: We're talking about a lovely book called "Stand Tall, Abe Lincoln."

PINKWATER: Yes, we are.

SIMON: By Judith St. George, illustrated by Matt Faulkner.

PINKWATER: Very well illustrated, indeed. And the book is part of a series called Turning Points, all to do with the lives of future presidents and supposed to depict some singular event to which we can connect their eventual ascendancy. It's an idea. I've seen it all my life in schoolbooks and Boy Scouts-approved biographies - Washington and the cherry tree and all that.

It's usually a process of mythmaking and deification. You look out for the illustration of the hand of God on the shoulder of George Washington. You know, we don't know whether the boy Lincoln necessarily witnessed slaves in chains, and it's for sure we don't know what he might have thought at a moment like that. So I bring you a book of an ordinary type - but...

SIMON: And the but is?

PINKWATER: Look at the pictures, first of all, Scott.

SIMON: Mm hmm.

PINKWATER: Really-good art.

SIMON: Yes, wonderfully - wonderfully done pictures.

PINKWATER: And it has an effect on me of familiarity, you know. OK, granted, the life on the, you know, southern Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky frontier was a little different in the 19th century, but a lot of it feels pretty similar - it's family life. And somehow, the drawings make me feel like, oh, yeah, this is like go to school when you're little.

SIMON: Let's - if I may put it this way - let me set up the story about Lincoln the boy here.

PINKWATER: Absolutely.

SIMON: When Abe is young, he sees - at least according to some stories over the years - he sees slaves and...

PINKWATER: We can assume.

SIMON: And, certainly, and is affected at seeing men in chains.

PINKWATER: We can assume.

SIMON: He has a younger brother who dies soon after birth. Family moves around. His mother, a very strong influence who encourages learning at a time when the onus is often on young children just to work the land. She teaches him to read, but then his beloved mother dies. His father goes back east to find another wife, and Abe and his sister, Sarah, are left alone.

PINKWATER: (Reading) Chapter Five, Abe Up in the Air. One December day, Abe and Sarah heard a commotion of horses and voices outside. Their father was home. He'd come back with a farm wagon piled high with furniture and a wife. Three children were perched on the wagon with her.

SIMON: (Reading) Sally Lincoln was tall and big-boned with a wide smile. She beamed and waved to Abe and Sarah. She didn't seem to notice that Abe's long limbs stuck out of his greasy butternut jeans and filthy toe shirt or that Sarah's dress was in tatters. She opened her heart and arms to the two sad-looking children. Sarah flew into them. Not Abe. He always took his time making up his mind about anything new, and what was newer than a new stepmother?

PINKWATER: (Reaading) Back in Kentucky, Thomas(ph) had known Sally for years. She was widowed, too. Now, Sally introduced her children to Abe and Sarah. There was Elizabeth - she was 12, Matilda was 8, and John Dee, 5. Abe was tall for 10. He towered over little John Dee. They were one family now.

First things first, Sally filled the horse trough with water. Abe and Sarah knew what that meant - a bath. But baths were for summertime, not December. There was no arguing with Sally. Abe and Sarah shivered through a good, hard scrub.

SIMON: (Reading) Cleaning the dirty cabin came next. Abe carried water back and forth from the creek, but he didn't join in the chatter. He needed time to get used to Sally. Not only was she big and broad-shouldered, but she also had a loud, booming voice. Abe's mother had been tall and slender, and her voice had been soft. How could a stepmother with three ready-made children have any love left over for them?

Right off, Sally announced she couldn't read or write, so Abe was struck dumb when she unpacked a pile of books - and what books! "Aesop's Fables," "Pilgrims Progress", "Arabian Nights," "Life of George Washington," "Robinson Crusoe." Sally must have seen Abe's eyes light up. She told him he was welcome to read any book he wanted.

PINKWATER: Let me break in here.

SIMON: Yeah.

PINKWATER: We can identify with this because this would be just as true in a family today as then. What makes this book resonate for me is the way the author and illustrator have handled the assignment. Instead of putting an artificial spotlight on questionable or made-up moments in Lincoln's childhood, they give us a story...

SIMON: Yeah.

PINKWATER: They create picture of people living in a community, and we get to see young Abe - a nice bright, capable, promising kid, like a lot of kids. He's not quite extraordinary.

SIMON: Yeah.

PINKWATER: He doesn't have any prophetic moments, but we like him.

SIMON: Yeah.

PINKWATER: And without the book telling us, we get the feeling that the people around him liked him.

SIMON: Yeah.

PINKWATER: He survived reverses, he got a bit of help here and there, found ways to develop his natural aptitudes, and he belonged to a community. It seems real to me.

SIMON: Yeah. And of course, the stepmother, the wicked stepmother is often how it's portrayed in storybooks, but here in life you have a woman who was touched by this real, little child and really was a turning point in his life because it was Sally, as the book goes on to explain and we know from history, who interceded with Abraham Lincoln's father so that he wouldn't have to do the chores until he'd done his schoolwork. She...

PINKWATER: Yeah. All done in a very compact way. It's a good blend of text and art. I'm particularly enamored of the illustrations. I think that they're as good as can be for this kind of thing, and it's a handsome book on a popular topic.

SIMON: A good week to remind ourselves that tall, skinny kids from Illinois can amount to something.

PINKWATER: And that people from Illinois in general tend to be heroes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Present company...

PINKWATER: Certainly included.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, I wasn't going to go that far, but I'll stand with you.

SIMON: The book is "Stand Tall, Abe Lincoln," written by Judith St. George, illustrated by Matt Faulker. Daniel Pinkwater joined us from his home in the Hudson Valley. He's the author of many fine books for children and for adults. His forthcoming novel is the "The Yggyssey," and you can read the book before publication at pinkwater.com. Thank you so much, Daniel.

PINKWATER: Scott, it's always fun to talk to you.

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