En garde! Today we celebrate the release of Donna Janell Bowman’s new picture book biography, Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S. D. Schindler!
Long before he was our beloved president, Abraham Lincoln was known for his smarts and his knee-slapping humor. In 1842, that got him into a heap of trouble.
When he clashed with James Shields, a political rival, Lincoln came up with a rascally plan.
It was silly.
It was clever
And it was a great big mistake!
Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel!
Lincoln would need his wit and a healthy dose of humility to save his career—and maybe even his life!
A rare look at the more human side of Abraham Lincoln and how the lessons he learned made him a better man.
Welcome Donna! So, tell us …
What was the spark that ignited this book?
Oh, goodness, I think it sparked from the realization that Abraham Lincoln, the man I had always envisioned to be as polished as his posthumous memorials, was actually as flawed and human as the rest of us. It was a complete accident that, in 2011 or 2012, I stumbled upon a one-line mention of his duel while researching for another book. The realization of Lincoln’s foibles collided with my preconceived notions, which launched a new research journey. As I dug into biographies of Lincoln and the letters and documents that survive him, I began to admire how he overcame his foibles. Lincoln’s mean-spirited mistake landed him on the dueling ground. He ultimately had a choice to either allow his great big mistake to define him or to teach him. Obviously, he chose the latter.
As I always do before I begin writing, I searched for mentor texts—picture book biographies—that focus on a less-than-stellar side of a famous person. Needless to say, there were few. Initially, I was a bit nervous about shining a light on an event that Lincoln himself was ashamed of, until I read his law partner’s recollection that Lincoln complained that biographies magnified perfections and suppressed imperfections. In fact, Lincoln argued that they “commemorate a lie and cheat posterity out of the truth.” It felt like Lincoln himself was giving me his blessings to share his story.
The more global spark of the story for me lies in a lingering question that I hope all readers will consider after reading my book. What would have happened if the events of the duel had gone another way and Abraham Lincoln had never been president?
Tell us about how you sold this book. What was it like when you found out? Do you have an agent? Were there a lot of revisions along the way?
In 2012, I had a first draft of the Lincoln manuscript (then titled En Garde!). I showed it to my agent, Erin Murphy, then continued to revise for several months while simultaneously revising Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness for Lee and Low. Once my Lincoln manuscript shined, I snagged a critique with Peachtree editor Kathy Landwehr at the February 2013 Austin SCBWI conference. By conference time, she had already contacted my agent to express interest. Kathy was most impressed with my voice in the manuscript. As you can imagine, being complimented on voice—that most difficult craft element to cultivate—made me giddy. Soon, we were under contract.
We did go through more revisions to further finesse the voice and the direct-address narrator, and to simplify and streamline the complex historical aspects of the story. It was a joy to collaborate with an editor whose vision for the book so closely matched my own.