“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”

February 17, 2014 § 1 Comment

Thomas Jefferson by Maira KalmanMy wish has come true: the exquisite Maira Kalman has graced us with another presidential picture book! Last year, she gave us Looking at Lincoln, which I’ve gifted to more people than I can count (read why here). This year, she introduces our children to Monticello, the Declaration of Independence, and the brilliant, curious, and at times hypocritical Thomas Jefferson, in her just-published Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Everything (Ages 6-12).

Instead of beginning, as we might expect, with chronological details of Jefferson’s life, Kalman’s biography takes us straight to the heart of her subject—or, rather, to his mind. The book opens with Jefferson’s love of books (“I cannot live without books,” he said—a man after my own heart); manners (he could say “please” in seven languages); vegetables (his gardens sported nine varieties of peas, his favorite); and “light and air” (he constantly changed Monticello’s architecture to let in both).

Like in Lincoln, one gets the impression that the narrator guiding us on this tour is a passionate and well-studied child: “What was he interested in? Everything. I mean it. Everything.” Happily, my favorite quirky detail of Jefferson’s personality (which I remember learning on a tour of Monticello) is included: that he slept sitting up, ready to spring into action. In fact, an entire double spread is dedicated to Jefferson’s twin-sized bed, strategically placed between two rooms so that he could exit the covers on one side into his study—“or he could get out of bed on the other side, jump into his boots and go outside.”

Not to worry: Kalman does eventually find her way into political milestones, including Jefferson’s place in relation to the Founding Fathers (great mention of George Washington’s teeth here), his authorship of the Declaration, his election as third President of the United States, his legacy in separating church and state, and the Louisiana Purchase and expedition of Lewis and Clark. Each subject is given only the briefest introduction (with more details provided in the book’s index); but the beautiful prose, combined with Kalman’s signature oil paintings—brilliant explosions of color and life at every turn (oh, to have any of these paintings on my own walls!)—make Kalman an absolute master at piquing the interest of young readers. I can’t think of a better author-illustrator when it comes to planting seeds for more in-depth, independent research in classrooms and homes. (Speaking of seeds, somewhere in my possession if I can ever find them, are four seeds from Jefferson’s own line of beans that he bred at Monticello, a gift from a friend when we moved to Virginia four years ago. The time is ripe…)

And yet, no discussion of the man who wrote the words “all men are created equal” (and said of slavery, “this abomination must end”) would be complete without an acknowledgment of the paradoxes in Jefferson’s personal life. Kalman handles this topic gently but poignantly, painting one of the sparse and cramped rooms in which Jefferson’s 150 slaves lived, along with the juxtaposition of a kitchen full of toiling slave women (“look, there’s a baby on the floor!” my kids quickly pointed out) beside a formal dining room set with the “best of everything,” including nine types of pudding! An excerpt from Jefferson’s farm book lists the names of his slaves; and Kalman calls specific attention to “the beautiful Sally Hemings,” a slave with which Jefferson allegedly had several children after his wife died. But what is unique here is Kalman’s mention of “racial passing,” a phenomenon that gets little attention in elementary history books, whereby light-skinned black people (here, the children of Jefferson and Hemings) would “hide the fact that [they] were partially black,” because “in such a prejudiced land” it was easier to have society believe you were white. “To hide your background is a very sad thing,” our young narrator writes, opening the way for further conversations on this fascinating and too-often-neglected part of our country’s history.

Jefferson’s gravestone, bearing the epitaph that Jefferson himself wrote before he died, oddly does not list President as among his achievements. “I wonder why,” our narrator ponders, just enough to get our own wheels turning. Perhaps Jefferson was all too aware of the discrepancies between his beliefs and his actions; perhaps he felt conflicted by his legacy as a Great Leader. But a formative leader he was, and his flaws are no reason not to share this exceptional book with your children—nor to take them to the “Museum of the Mind,” which Jefferson called home. For, in Kalman’s words:

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.

Other Favorite Picture Books About Thomas Jefferson:
Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library, by Barb Rosenstock & John O’Brien (Ages 6-12)
Worst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the True Story of an American Feud, by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain & Larry Day (Ages 6-12)

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