There may be no more famous man in Illinois history than Abraham Lincoln. More than 150 years after his death, the 16th president continues to inspire writers of all kinds. But before 2018, few books had been written about Lincoln as a boy, and even fewer had been written from the young Abe’s point of view.
That changed when retired teacher and author Jan Jacobi wrote the novel “Young Lincoln,” in which the famous Illinoisan himself narrates his journey from young boy to young man, painting a rarely-seen portrait of Lincoln’s formative years.
Reporter Sam Dunklau chatted with Jacobi about the book, which won a Nautilus Book Award for middle grade fiction earlier this year.
SD: Before we go into the book, why don't we talk a little bit about you as an author and what got you interested in wanting to do a book about Lincoln?
JJ: "I'm a school teacher, [and have been] a school teacher all my life. I was a principal for 30 years of a division of an independent school in St. Louis. I was originally [from] New York, [and] came out to St. Louis. But when I came to St. Louis, I realized I was about an hour and a half from the Lincoln sites.
A couple years after I started at my school, we brought seventh and eighth graders up to the Springfield area. When we went to New Salem, there was something about New Salem that I found extraordinarily special, and I came back a number of times to New Salem. Then my students at one point said, 'You know, we're learning about Lincoln, can you recommend a book for us?' And I said, 'Well, you know, I really can't, because you're in middle school and there's things for elementary and high school, but nothing for in between.'
[But then] I said, 'Well, you're a writer, you should write it!' That's how the book came into being, although it didn't come right away. It took seven years."
SD: Take us through this book. When we meet Lincoln, he's just a boy. This is following his life in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, as he's growing up. Take us from from point A to point B.
JJ: "The first part, of course, is when he's born and lives in Kentucky. At age seven, the family moved up to Indiana. They were there for 13 years...so more of his growth takes place there.
Interestingly, one of the little stories I have in there is that when they move from Kentucky to Indiana, Abe had a dog called Honey. His father told him that they couldn't take the dog on this journey, and Abe was brokenhearted. They left the dog and they went through 70 miles of wilderness to get to the Ohio River. Well, sure enough, when they got on the ferry boat and the boat pulls off, there's this...little animal swimming in the in the river. People thought it was a racoon or a dog, [but] then they they found out that it was Honey! Honey had followed, and so Abe actually jumped off the boat and swims to rescue Honey.
[Then] he's a little worried that his father is going to beat him; his father whipped him when he was younger, as was pretty normal on the frontier. But his father said. 'What that dog done for you and with what you've done for that dog, you can keep him.'"
SD: I've never heard that anecdote!
But you know, frankly, there are a lot of books about Lincoln out there. Much of them, as you are well-familiar, focus on his presidential years. There's a lot of sober political analysis of Lincoln the debater, of Lincoln the politician, of Lincoln the president and so on and so forth. What makes a book like this different in a time when we have 150 years worth of literature on him?
JJ: "Well, I think it's the first person aspect of it. I think that certainly does it. I should say...I had a lot of fun with this book because the primary source material is William Herndon's interviews and and letters that he collected after Lincoln died from all those people in Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky that had known him. So some of the primary source material is smaller.
What I think what this book does, and what does make it different, is it's for the audience of middle school and high school and...it's first person and I think it really presents to children and young adults a Lincoln that they would they would not know.
He experiences many of the same things they do. He's got tension with his father. He is looking for purpose in his life. He loves being with his friends, but he also likes time alone when he can walk through the woods and reflect. He feels the first whiffs of depression. He has to cope with loss and his own secret sorrows, which modern adolescents have. And he's got religious doubts, and he is shy around girls. So I think that connects with the audience, and there hasn't been a book like this for that audience. As I said, when they came to me and said, 'Can you recommend one?,' I couldn't find it. So it's for that age level, although adults have read it and enjoyed it too."
SD: All those elements that you're describing would make for a perfect coming of age story with any character, and yet this is the 16th President we're talking about here!
In looking at writing this book from such hindsight and having all of the primary source material that you did, knowing that this young boy would become the president of the United States, was it difficult to get in that younger voice of Lincoln? You know, despite all the knowledge that you knew what ahead of time?
JJ: "It came easier than I thought it would. I'm no David McCullough, but David McCullough says you have to have this material marinate. I think that's what was happening...I started reading and writing about Lincoln in 1984, and I think all that material came to fruition in trying to tell this story. It was beneficial to have to tell the story to middle school or high school; that way I couldn't get pretentious."
SD: Did you find it any more difficult, or did the editors give you any notes, about how to write for kids in this distraction-filled world?
JJ: "Well, yes. I think I'm benefited from that as well; I've taught them for 30 years. In fact...when I was working on earlier draft, I read parts of it to them. They loved the action parts: of the wrestling match with Jack Armstrong up in New Salem, how Lincoln's grandfather is killed by an Indian and the father is right there witnessing that. Kids, of course, loved all that.
But there are points in the book where Lincoln is reflective and they seemed to enjoy those too, although there was one about Robinson Crusoe. He [Abe Lincoln] read Robinson Crusoe as boy, and I was kind of assuming that everybody knew about Robinson Crusoe. I read it to my eighth graders, and they didn't get it, and so I said, 'Well, that's your problem!' They looked at me and said, 'No, it's your problem! You have to figure out what you're trying to say for us, not the other way around!'"
SD: Now that this book is out, it's won awards. It's clearly gotten acclaim, and it's now being recommended to kids to read as something additional [for] their Lincoln coursework. Are you happy with how things have gone so far?
JJ: "I'm really, to use a word, overwhelmed! There I was, a middle school teacher, my students said 'You should write it!' I thought I was a writer until the publisher said, 'You're a teacher, not a writer!' So I kept at it. But I knew that there was a Lincoln in me that I wanted to be there for my students."