Happy President’s Day!
Can’t think of a better way to celebrate the holiday than by singing the praises of Maira Kalman’s brand new picture book biography about Thomas Jefferson.
I pretty much adore everything Maira does, and I’ve been fascinated by our red-haired, violin-playing, wine-guzzling, pea-loving, Renaissance Man foodie President ever since I first visited Monticello years ago.
In Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything (Paulsen/Penguin, 2014), Ms. Kalman has accomplished the seemingly impossible, capturing the genius, complexity, contributions, contradictions, and affecting humanness of our third President in just 40 glorious pages.
Her disarming conversational narrative, peppered with just the kind of offbeat detail kids love, is fueled by a contaigious enthusiasm for her subject. She begins:
Thomas Jefferson had red hair and some freckles (about 20 I think), he grew to be very tall and oh yes, he was the third President of the United States . . .
What was he interested in?
I mean it.
She mentions Jefferson’s love of books, music, flora and fauna, and that he could speak seven languages. She spotlights the ingenious design of his beloved Monticello,”a Museum of his Mind” with its famed vegetable garden, citing Jefferson’s advocacy of a mostly vegetarian diet. Though he lived a good life, “full of work and love,” it was tinged with sadness: his wife Martha died young and four of their six children didn’t live to adulthood.
She details Jefferson’s role as a Founding Father and author of the Declaration of Independence, brilliantly humanizing other illustrious figures like Franklin, Adams and Washington via singular details: Ben’s crazy great hat, John’s fiery temper, George’s false teeth. Then it’s all about Jefferson’s presidency (Louisiana Purchase, Lewis & Clark Expedition), before sensitively introducing the topic of slavery.
The man who said of slavery
“This ABOMINATION MUST END”
was the owner of about 150 slaves.
The MONUMENTAL MAN had MONUMENTAL FLAWS.
She tells it straight and true, and does not shy away from mentioning that Jefferson likely had children with Sally Hemings, and what a sad thing it was when people felt the need to hide their background by passing for white. Her despair over these painful issues and puzzlement over Jefferson’s hypocrisy are deftly conveyed in a way that respects young readers and will likely win their trust.
I love how Maira’s hand-lettering alternates with the standard font to highlight asides, personal thoughts and select facts. These words just brim with personality, keeping things from sounding too textbook-y, ultimately strengthening the intimate bond between author and reader.
Illuminated and expanded by vibrant and whimsical gouache paintings rendered in striking jewel-tones, Kalman’s account of Jefferson as President, scholar, statesman, architect, scientist, botanist, connoisseur, author, inventor, and plantation owner is recommended for readers of all ages who appreciate spirited storytelling and creative nonfiction infused with wit, wisdom, and the excitement of discovery.
Who better to tell about the man who was interested in “everything” than a writer and artist who herself is endlessly curious and so brilliant at curating the idiosyncratic ‘everythings’ she encounters in her own life?
If you want to understand this country and its people and what it means to be OPTIMISTIC and COMPLEX and Tragic and Wrong and Courageous, You Need to go to Monticello.
Walk around the house and the gardens.
The linden trees might be in bloom, filling the air with their delicious perfume.
Maybe you will lie down under a tree
and fall asleep thinking about
LIFE, Liberty and the Pursuit of EVERYTHING.
Five Big Soup Spoons for this one!
* * *
♥ Call Me Ms. Pudding ♥