Tuesday, December 9, 2008


VINNIE AND ABRAHAM by Dawn Fitzgerald, illustrated by Catherine Stock (Charlesbridge)
"My work has never been a labor, but an ecstatic delight to my soul. I have woked in my studio not envying kings in their splendor; my mind to me was my kingdom, and my work more than diamonds and rubies. If my encouraging words can help any struggling artist to have new hope, I shall be glad..." -Vinnie Ream
With so many men away fighting the Civil War, women were given new opportunities for employment, and fourteen-year-old Vinnie Ream took on work sorting dead letters in the post office. During her noon breaks, she slipped away to the Washington graveyards, cultivating her gift for sculpture. Realizing "I'll have to make my own opportunity if I ever hope to make art," she apprenticed herself out to a famous artist, who could not deny her talent. Soon Vinnie reputation spread, and she was able to sculpt the likenesses of haughty congressmen, always putting out into the universe and into their influential ears her dearest wish: to sculpt the face of the brave President Lincoln, whom she often saw walking among the people despite many threats of assasination. Her wish was eventually granted, but bittersweet. After the deed of John Wilkes Booth, Congress sought to hire a sculptor to create a memorial statue of President Lincoln. Could Vinnie's image of the president as a kind and gentle man compete with other visions of Lincoln as a warrior or saint? Would the bias against her age and gender stop her from giving the gift she wanted to create for her country?

Besides being a tribute to a woman who never gave up, this is an extraordinary story of friendship and admiration, of two parallel lives converging in a way that resonates through all time. The graceful writing in this book lends itself to smooth storytelling, and almost euphoric levels of inspiration. Have a hanky handy; I cried twice during the reading, just rooting for Vinnie and celebrating her achievement as the youngest and first woman to receive a commission from the U.S. government. Stock makes watercolors look easy, with varied layout, an expressive style that captures Vinnie's indomitable energy and what surely was also a loveliness about her, and also evokes the flavor of the period. Capped off with a stirring author's note and a manageable list of both print and internet resources, this unassuming picture book biography was never boring, and achieves a level of excellence will truly take readers by surprise. It's the best Civil War period piece to hit the children's shelves since Patricia Polacco's PINK AND SAY. (7 and up)

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