At the beginning of every school year, one of my student survey questions is:
“If you could talk to any person from history, who would it be? What three questions would you ask?”
Out of 64 students in my 2013 class, 13 chose Abe Lincoln—more than any other historic figure, including good old George Washington (tied for runner-up, with eight votes).
Why is Lincoln such a history rock star for tweens?
In answer to the survey, my sixth graders said they chose him because he’s their favorite president, he’s well known and important to our country, and “he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation.” (Note: The proclamation is 200 years old this year, and the subject of an online Document Deep Dive and exhibition at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. )
One student wrote that he chose Lincoln because "he could make me a better reader and could lead me on the right path." Precisely.
Historians and authors of children’s biographies take note. Here are some questions that sixth graders would like to ask President Lincoln:
- "What is it like getting shot?"
- "What would you do if you knew you were going to die at Ford's Theater?"
- "How did you get to be so honest?"
- "Did you ever tell a lie?"
- "How did you deal with people criticizing you?"
- "Had it always been your dream to be president?"
- "How did you make it through the Civil War?
- "Why and how did you end slavery?"
- "Are you honored to have a big statue of you sitting in a chair?"
- "Why are you on the penny?"
With movies, books, and television specials serving up a smorgasbord on the 16th president (more than 50 hits on the International Movie Data Base site—even zombies and vampires, included!), it seems the public appetite never wanes for the 16th president.
For a student just beginning a journey into this fascinating American’s life, I highly recommend the Newbery winning Lincoln: A Photobiography, by Russell Freedman.
Freedman is, hands down, one of my favorite history authors. Of his many nonfiction titles, the ones I stock in my FREADOM classroom library are: Eleanor Roosevelt, A Life of Discovery, Kids at Work: Lewis Hind and the Crusade Against Child Labor, The Life and Death of Crazy Horse, and Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
If you want something off the beaten path, check out Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, by Steve Sheinkin. Sheinkin says on his website, “Yes, it's true, I used to write history textbooks. But I don't do that kind of thing anymore. Now I try to write history books that people will actually read voluntarily.”
I have to admit, I was dubious about this book, though, when I pulled it off my t-read shelf. I had never heard that Lincoln’s mortal remains were ever in danger of kidnapping. Really?
I learned something! It’s a true, tangled tale of treachery and intrigue.
The story opens in 1864 with a federal prisoner, Pete McCartney, jumping from a moving train. He is as “bruised as a rotting apple,” but free. Pete happens to be the brother-in-law and partner of the country’s most notorious counterfeiter, Ben Boyd. (“By 1864, an astounding 50 percent of the paper money in circulation was fake.”)
Enter the honest and enthusiastic Secret Service Operative out of Chicago, Patrick Tyrell. Tyrell doggedly tracks down and arrests Ben Boyd in 1875.
This news does not sit well with Big Jim Kennally, who relied on the talents of Ben Boyd for his own successful counterfeit ring. He masterminds a plot to steal the remains of Abraham Lincoln and ransom them in exchange for money and the release of Ben Boyd. Along with counterfeiting, body snatching was a lucrative business in the 1860s and 70s.
Sheinkin gives us insight into all the players, including a wily undercover agent who worms his way inside the gang of conspirators. Primary source photos, a glossary of terms, and a list of the players help readers keep track of the action in this wild ride.
I couldn’t put the book down.
Once kids are hooked on the story, the Secret Service website provides some interesting information for follow-up. They can find a timeline of the history of the Secret Service, a “Student Q&A” page, and a “Know Your Money" page where they (and you) can learn how to identify counterfeit money.
Another information resource is the PBS television program and companion website American Experience: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Two recent movies are Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (here’s The Unofficial Teaching Guide with historic notes, from Dickinson College’s A House Divided project) and Robert Redford’s The Consiprator, which begins after the assassination.
Please share your favorite Lincoln or Civil War stories and resources for tweens in the comments.
Addendum: NPR's Top 100 Books for Ages 9-14 includes The Lincolns, by Candace Fleming. The scrapbook approach eases in reluctant readers with recipes, photos, comics, drawings, letters, and other digestible bits.