It's been nearly 153 years since Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and 75 years since the children’s book about his life, Abraham Lincoln, written and illustrated by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire, won the 1940 Caldecott Medal. To celebrate these anniversaries, California publisher Beautiful Feet Books is reprinting a 75th-anniversary edition of the d’Aulaires’ Abraham Lincoln.
The book charts Lincoln’s life, from a toddler to a timber-chopping teen all the way to the White House, and is one of many historical biographies written and illustrated by the d’Aulaires. The couple met in Munich, studied art in Paris, and moved to New York, where they met Anne Carroll Moore, head of children’s services at the New York Public Library, who suggested they use their talents to create illustrated picture books. The d’Aulaires’ first title, The Magic Rug, was published in 1931, and the couple went on to create more than 30 books for children, including the Caldecott-winning Abraham Lincoln.
The couple used the laborious method of stone lithography to create detailed images for their books. They also conducted extensive research for their titles, taking the same voyage as Christopher Columbus did when writing Columbus, and trekking through Kentucky and Illinois, camping outside and drawing in notebooks to capture the life of Lincoln. “They were considered the first illustrators to actually make children’s books an art form,” said Rea Berg, editor and founder of Beautiful Feet Books.
As printing advanced in the 1950s and moved to acetate, printers weren’t as keen on dealing with the huge stones, weighing between 50 and 200 pounds, required to create the lithographic images for the d’Aulaires’ titles. Doubleday, their publisher, told them they would have to redraw their artwork on actate. The post-1957 edition of Abraham Lincoln, when they moved from lithography to acetate plates, shows what Berg called “dramatic degeneration” in the color and quality of the artwork. She said the book was “really destroyed” and therefore no longer well-received. “For a whole generation no one knew why this book won the Caldecott because the artwork turned so terrible,” Berg said. “To lose their contribution to the children’s book world was really a big loss.”
Beautiful Feet Books, founded in 1984 by Rea Berg and based in San Luis Obispo, Calif., provides study guides and books to the home education and private school markets. They began publishing children’s books in 1994, the same year that Rea’s husband Russell joined the company to run operations. Rea Berg said they got into publishing because they believe in “teaching history through literature rather than using textbooks.” At the time, the company was writing History Through Literature study guides but noticed that the books they recommended to parents and teachers were going out of print. So in 1995, they released their first title, a reprint of the d’Aulaires’ 1941 Leif the Lucky, a book that had been out of print for 50 years, cementing their commitment to integrating the best of children’s literature into an educational curriculum.
“It’s become a real passion for us to find these old treasures that have so much value yet can’t survive in the mainstream publishing industry,” said Berg. “We want to bring them back into print and keep them alive.”
Berg said that this is the first time since 1957 that Abraham Lincoln will feature images as close to the original as possible. “It’s so gratifying to bring this book back to its original beauty,” Berg said.
Beautiful Feet Books worked with Timothy Young, curator of the Betsy Beinecke Shirley Collection of American Children’s Literature at Yale University, to restore the original art through scanned reproductions of the original lithographic proofs from the 1939 edition of Abraham Lincoln, acquired by Yale in 2006. Berg said the look and feel of the current book is as close as possible to the original.
Berg said they made minor modifications to the original art and text to reflect contemporary views about race politics and to reflect historical accuracy, citing two instances in the book, including one of a Native American cowering behind Lincoln, which they fixed to have him “standing erect.” Another is when Lincoln is walking down the streets, with freed slaves bowing down to him. “The original text didn’t mention that he didn’t want them bowing down to him,” said Berg. “The original didn’t say that he actually shook hands with them. So we altered his face and made him shake hands with the former slaves and added in what he actually said in the historical record, which was, ‘Do not kneel to me.’ ”
In the introduction to the 75th-anniversary edition, curator Young calls Abraham Lincoln “a prime example of what was produced during what many people call the golden age of the American picture book.” Young highlights the amount of detailed work that went into the making of the book and wants readers “to remember that even the most simple books for children are never simply made.”
Beautiful Feet Books publishes an average of two to three titles a year, all which focus on children’s historical literature that’s “both beautifully illustrated and well-written,” Berg said. The press has reprinted a number of notable authors like Newbery-winning author James Daugherty, and four-time Caldecott Honor artist Genevieve Foster, and other children’s books about history like the wordless picture books of Mitsumasa Anno.
Berg said they found a real need for these kinds of titles because “there’s a whole connection between delight and learning,” she said. “If you can capture a child’s delight they can learn just about anything. Exposing children to beautiful illustrations is a great way for them to learn to love books, history, and the story of people.”