About the Holiday
Today we celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, who was born in 1809 in Hodgenville, Kentucky. He rose from poverty to become a statesman, lawyer, and the 16th president of the United States, serving from 1861 until he was assassinated in 1865. He guided the country through the Civil War and on January 1, 1983 signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery. By 1890, Lincoln’s birthday was recognized as a state holiday but never became a federal holiday. The celebration of Lincoln’s birthday was combined with George Washington’s in 1971 when President’s Day was instituted. Only a handful of states still recognize Lincoln’s birthday as a separate state holiday.
Lincoln Tells a Joke: How Laughter Saved the President (and the Country)
Written by Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer | Illustrated by Stacy Innerst
Throughout his life things were grim for Abraham Lincoln, but he had a way of responding that made them better. He was born in 1809 in a log cabin that had a dirt floor, cornhusk mattresses, and cracks in the walls so thick that the snow blew in. All day long he did backbreaking work for his strict father, but in the evenings his father “told jokes and the family laughed together.” Of his father, Lincoln once said, “‘My father taught me how to work, but not to love it. I’d rather read, tell stories, crack jokes, talk, laugh.’”
Even as a child, Lincoln loved to read and write. His mother died when Lincoln was only nine years old, but “words and humor seemed to ease the pain.” He liked to get together with friends and read aloud from joke books, and at the age of eleven, he wrote his first nonsense poem. Lincoln loved to learn, but because of all the work at home, he “had a total of only one year of official schooling.” Instead, he read everything he could.
He grew up to be six feet, four inches tall, with huge feet and hands, and a big nose. His appearance was one of the things he joked about the most. When he was nineteen, Lincoln moved to New Salem, Illinois. He had such a reputation for humor that a local judge asked him to come to court to comment on cases. Here, Lincoln learned the importance of words and how they could be used by watching and listening to the lawyers. Despite all their learning, these men couldn’t fool Abe. He once commented of one lawyer: “‘That man can pack the most words into the least ideas of any man I know.’”
When he was twenty-three he served in the military, but he said the only battles he saw were with mosquitoes. After he was discharged that same year, he ran for the Illinois state legislature and lost. When he tried again two years later, he won and went on to serve for four terms, keeping the “‘House in a continuous roar of merriment.’”
As he got older his looks and sometimes depressive personality only seemed to get worse, but Lincoln kept joking and was a favorite of children. When he, himself, became a lawyer, he was brilliant at summing up hours of testimony in “one clever story that would get the jury on his side.” Then he met Mary Todd, who was “witty, bubbly, and very smart about politics.” He loved her and she loved him, but her family rejected him as not wealthy or high-society enough. Even their attitude, though, was fodder for Lincoln’s jests.
When Abe and Mary did marry, he joked about their sixteen-inch height difference, and when they had four boys, he kept them entertained with his humor. Lincoln even thought jokes should be taught in school because he believed they made kids smarter.
Lincoln continued to run for higher political offices, losing many races, but always maintaining his sense of humor. Along the way, he gained a reputation for honesty. He also had a talent for skewering even serious topics in a way that brought out the truth: “‘Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.’”
When Lincoln was elected president, his White House rang with laughter. Guests were charmed, while reporters, those wanting inside knowledge, or people asking for favors were left chuckling but not any wiser. During the Civil War years, Lincoln alleviated the stress and kept a clear head by reading his favorite humor writers, encouraging his advisers to do the same.
Lincoln’s talent for words helped keep the country together even through its worst crisis. “His gift for language—and how it can inspire people—is one reason he is considered one of our best presidents” even though during his presidency he was one of the most unpopular due to his politics. When he was shot at Ford’s Theater five days after the war ended, Lincoln was attending a comic play and may have been “laughing even in the final moments of his life.” Abraham Lincoln had an amazing life, fueled by his sense of humor that took him from a tiny log cabin to the White House and into American’s hearts.
Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer have written a terrific biography of Abraham Lincoln focusing on the personality trait that made him such a unique individual and uniquely qualified to shepherd America through its most difficult time. Lincoln’s sense of humor was charged with intelligence and true cleverness and showcased his love and understanding of words and language. Children, with their own well-developed senses of humor and affinity for a good joke, will be captivated by Krull and Brewer’s conversational tone that is sprinkled with the wit and wisdom Abraham Lincoln displayed from the time he, himself, was a child. Lincoln Tells a Joke reveals not only facts from Lincoln’s life but the all-important aspects of his character that allowed him to rise above his lack of formal education and leading-man looks to become one of the most admired men ever born.
Stacy Innerst’s hip, folk-art-style paintings mirror Abraham Lincoln’s humor with unusual perspectives, quirky details, and plenty of peppered-in “ha, ha, ha’s” while highlighting his stature both as a sensitive, thoughtful man and as a politician. Lincoln’s elongated arms and legs stretch across the pages, children laughing at his jokes don’t even reach his knees, and the tall tower of papers in front of him on his desk completely hide him except for his arms. Innerst’s color pallet of muddy sepia tones, rusty reds, and deep aqua blues; flat landscapes, and political imagery give readers the feel and spirit of the 1800s Midwest and Washington DC. In a moving double-spread illustration, Innerst seats Lincoln at his desk as the handwritten words of the Gettysburg Address form the backdrop. As the story closes, Innerst re-imagines the Lincoln Memorial statue with Lincoln laughing while reading his favorite book, Quinn’s Jests. It’s a fitting tribute to both Lincoln and the power of laughter.
Lincoln Tells a Joke is a fantastic biography for home libraries for children who like biographies, history, Abraham Lincoln, or a well-told story. The book would be an inspired choice for classroom, school, and public libraries.
Ages 6 – 10
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2016
Discover more about Kathleen Krull and her books on her website.
Learn more about Paul Brewer, his books and his art on his website.
To view a portfolio of books and artwork by Stacy Innerst, visit his website.
Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday Activity
Abe Lincoln’s Stovepipe Hat Chalkboard
Abraham Lincoln was known for the black top hat he wore – and for his inspiring words In this activity you can learn how to make a top hat chalkboard to use for your own drawings or inspiring words!
- Cereal Box (I used a large sized cereal box), cardboard or poster board
- Chalkboard Paint (black)
- Paint brush
- Hot Glue Gun or extra-strength glue
- Removable mounting squares
- If you are using cardboard or poster board: cut a rectangle at least 8 inches wide by 12 inches long for the hat and 12 inches long by 2 inches wide for the brim (but your top hat can be any size you’d like!)
- If you are using a Cereal Box: open the seams of the Cereal Box
- Cut the panels of the cereal box apart
- Take one face panel and one side panel
- With the chalkboard paint, paint both panels
- Let the panels dry
- Attach the side panel to the bottom of the face panel to create the shape of Lincoln’s top hat
- Hang Abe Lincoln’s Top Hat Chalkboard
Picture Book Review