Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of America, was born on April 2 according to the old style (Julian) calendar, which was changed in 1752 in the U.S. to the Gregorian calendar, still in use today. The new calendar pushed all dates forward by eleven days, so that Jefferson’s birthdate became April 13. Those born during this period often celebrated their birthdays on both days, if they celebrated at all. (According to scholars at Monticello, Jefferson always insisted the only birthday he observed was July 4, the birthday of his country.)
Maira Kalman creates gorgeous books, and fortunately, she is an excellent storyteller as well. Her book for children on the life of Lincoln was absolutely wonderful (see my review here) but I was worried about this one: what would she say about Jefferson and his unwillingness to give up his slaves?
Kalman does not make Jefferson’s weaknesses central to the book, but she doesn’t ignore them either. She writes:
“‘The man who said of slavery ‘This ABOMINATION MUST END’ was the owner of about 150 slaves. The MONUMENTAL MAN had MONUMENTAL FLAWS.”
Including a reproduction of the list of Jefferson’s slaves in his farm books, she notes:
“OUR hearts are BROKEN.”
Most of all, however, Kalman focuses on Jefferson’s eclectic range of interests, his love of books – “on history, science, philosophy, government, mathematics, music, art and so much more,” his work on his estate which he called Monticello, and his accomplishments in government.
She explains about his belief in the separation of church and state, and about his purchase from Napoleon of a large part of the land that became the United States.
“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.”
What an amazingly concise and astute way to summarize not just the character of Jefferson, but of the other Founding Fathers as well.
The Matisse-like whimsical paintings in the book are bursting with vibrant colors, and the typeface varies in size, style, and color, depending on the text.
In the back, a brief annotated note section adds more details about the people and events described in the book.
Evaluation: This is an outstanding resource about Jefferson for readers of all ages. The text is funny and informative, with lots of kid appeal. The illustrations are stunning.
Published by Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2014.