December 04, 2008


Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale (Introducing His Forgotten Frontier Friend). By Deborah Hopkinson. Illustrated by John Hendrix. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

Stitchin’ and Pullin’: A Gee’s Bend Quilt. By Patricia C. McKissack. Illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera. Random House. $17.99.

     A tremendously cleverly told story that feels like an Old West “tall tale” but has its basis in fact, Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek is the story of a day when seven-year-old Abe might well have drowned had it not been for his “forgotten frontier friend,” Austin Gollaher. Deborah Hopkinson bases her story on historical accounts of Abe’s Kentucky childhood and the boy identified in several sources as his “playmate.” But the exact happenings that momentous-in-retrospect day at Knob Creek are not known, and that is where John Hendrix comes in with some of the most wonderful illustrations in any children’s book this year. Hendrix pulls himself, as artist, into the story: his right hand is seen drawing Knob Creek and its surroundings at the beginning; he inserts arrows and other highlights to emphasize dramatic parts of the narrative; he creates a huge display sign for Hopkinson’s mid-narrative interruption at the moment when young Abe falls, or might have fallen, into the rain-swollen creek; his brush appears at the far right of the page, drawing the rough water, as the narrative resumes in a different way; and much more. The book becomes a marvelous author-artist collaboration, as when Abe is seen falling into the creek and the next page shows nothing much but trees, with Hopkinson’s words to her collaborator, “Wait. Where’s Austin? Now, John, don’t let him wander off to chase a partridge…” And then we see Hendrix illustrating various ways Austin might have helped Abe out of the creek (since no one is sure what he actually did); and we see Hendrix picturing grown-up Austin with President Lincoln, but that never happened, so we see the picture in the process of being erased, and...well, Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek is a succession of astonishments, each one better than the last, and it is certainly one of the cleverest and best-structured books for ages 4-8 to come along in quite some time. And its moral – about the importance of people who do not necessarily make it into history books – is a simply wonderful one.

     Stitchin’ and Pullin’ is for slightly older readers – ages 6-10 – and tells its story with high seriousness rather than humor. It is a story that touches in its own way on Abe Lincoln, although he is not directly part of it, for this is the tale of poor blacks living in the rural South and expressing themselves both practically and artistically through making quilts – originally for families to use to stay warm, but also as mementoes of events in the lives of the former slaves who settled in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, after the Civil War. Over time, the quilts took on additional and more complex meanings, as Patricia McKissack explains; and they were eventually discovered by people in the larger world, with the result that mass-market stores (notably Sears) started having them made to order for widespread sale. The quilts have even been displayed in museums and portrayed on U.S. postage stamps. But McKissack’s story – whose illustrations, by quilter Cozbi Cabrera, are filled with quilt colors, shapes and patches – is told in a personal way, in the voice of a young girl working on her first quilt with the adult women of Gee’s Bend. “A quilt is a puzzle made of cloth,” the young quilter explains, and then shows what some of the puzzle’s pieces are: a history of the once-isolated community, then its discovery “by sociologists, historians, educators, and journalists, who came from everywhere,” and then the way it subsided back into its original quiet ways for a time – until the 1960s and beyond, as the fabric of society changed in ways that were reflected in the fabric of the quilts as well. Stitchin’ and Pullin’ is an unusual approach to the often-told tale of the struggle for civil rights in the South, and is more approachable than many other narratives of the same events. What holds it together so well are the quilts themselves – just as what holds the bits of fabric together in a Gee’s Bend quilt are the skill, experience and love of the quilters.

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