Review of the Day: Monument Maker by Linda Booth Sweeney, ill. Shawn Fields
- Monument Maker: Daniel Chester French and the Lincoln Memorial
- By Linda Booth Sweeney
- Illustrated by Shawn Fields
- ISBN: 978-0-88448-643-5
- Ages 6-9
- On shelves now
Having a childlike sense of wonder is a double-edged sword. In my capacity as a reviewer of children’s books who left behind her kid years decades and decades ago, I pride myself on how well I can tap into my younger self when I read a book for that age range. But while it’s all well and good to cultivate a sense of childish wonder, being “childish” is the flip side of the coin. Take Monument Maker. Note the shiny Junior Library Guild “Gold Standard” stamp on the cover. Note the excellent reviews it has received from professional journals. Now listen as the four-year-old inside me screams within my head at a raging pitch, “But I don’t wanna read it! I DON’T WANNA!!!” All this because the cover is a black and white image rendered in ink and graphite of the statue of an ex-president. The four-year-old is now claiming that the book is boring. The four-year-old hasn’t even read it yet, I point out. The four-year-old says it doesn’t have to. That she knows what it’s like already. But I am not actually four, so at lunchtime I sigh and take the book with me, and sit down to read it. In my job, such low expectations are a boon. Because when a book is as funny, smart, beautiful, and interesting as Monument Maker, you have a chance to remember that old adage about judging a book by its cover.
It wasn’t so much that Dan wasn’t good at anything. He’d done passably well studying law, but it wasn’t for him. He wasn’t top notch at algebra or geometry or physics, so after his schooling he worked the family farm, even though there just wasn’t much for him there. And then one day he found . . . a turnip. A really weird looking turnip. One where its funky shape allowed him to carve it into a dapper little frog in a top-notch suit. Dan left the frog on the kitchen table without much thought, but when his family saw it you would have thought he’d single handedly master minded the Magna Carta. Dan was actually GOOD at something!! And even better, it was something he wanted to get better at. The next thing you know he was studying anatomy. He was apprenticed to a sculptor in NYC. And when he entered a contest to celebrate the farmers who fought in the Revolutionary War, it was Dan’s statue that won. But it was the commission to create a new kind of statue of President Lincoln that required Dan to dig into his own personal past and come up with something that Americans everywhere could look up to and admire for once and all time.
“History shapes our lives. And what we do with our lives can shape history”. So reads the first sentence in Monument Maker. It is easy to ignore, either honestly or selectively, the monuments erected by our ancestors. A statue is as much a monument to past beliefs of who deserves to be idolized as it is the subject of the statue itself. In the news, you will hear of Confederate leaders and figures, their statues pulled to the ground in a effort to remind us that not everyone we physically look up to deserves that. On the flip side, statues like the one of John Henry in Talcott, West Virginia have been abused by racists for decades. No matter who it is you honor, someone will object. And much as statues have been called into question over the years, biographies of statues have been the subject of much scrutiny. You won’t find much to debate with any of the multitude of children’s books about the creation of the Statue of Liberty, but what about Mount Rushmore? In that case you have land taken from the Lakota people by the U.S. government without their consent. So often, these books about famous statues and monuments are cheerleading sections for America. Yet only the smartest authors think to include moments that hat tip problematic elements in their creation.
Is Monument Maker capable of complex thinking about the Lincoln Memorial? It’s an interesting question and it splits into two parts. On the one hand you have the text of the book and the text of the backmatter. On the other hand you have the illustrations. Determined to start with the text, I first looked to the author. Linda Booth Sweeney has written science and nature books for younger readers primarily, but there is one other book in her roster that caught my eye. The title Connected Wisdom: Living Stories About Living Systems seeks, according to its publisher’s description, the following: “If kids understand living systems, they’re more likely to think and act in informed ways and less likely to jump to blame a single cause for the challenges they encounter.” So Sweeney is dedicated to introducing kids to the fact that the world is complex. And while I wouldn’t say that Monument Maker delves deep into the ramifications of creating a statue of Lincoln himself, it does take the time to think about the racial implications of its creation. For example, when discussing the actual physical labor of putting the statue together the book notes that “Just as America was built by many hands, so was the Lincoln Memorial. Blocks of white marble for Daniel’s statue were blasted and cut from a Georgia mountainside by the sons and grandsons of American slaves.” Those men stand front and center on that page for the reader. Later you see other black workers putting the monument together. Marian Anderson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama are all pictured in front of the monument later in the book. However, it’s a little after that that you read more information about the statue’s dedication ceremony. Sweeney notes where you would have sat that day if you were white and had a printed ticket. She then notes that you would have sat at an entirely different location if you’d been black. That’s right, there was a “colored section” at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial. There was a sole black speaker slated for the day too but he was “forced to rewrite his speech when the Lincoln Memorial Commission determined that his call for racial justice was too radical.” A true writer of children’s history is unafraid to note horrible ironies, even while honoring the admirable parts of the past. Sweeney is a true writer in this very sense.
Oh. And it’s super fun to read. I’m sorry, did I bury the lede on that one? Remember my earlier kvetching about how much I didn’t want to read this black and white book? Well, the fact that it was fun helped loads. First off Sweeney makes Dan sympathetic right from the start. He’s in a family where everyone is a lawyer or a judge and he wants to be an artist? Then there’s his personality. The frog turnip is a keen detail as is the detail of him running a model, last minute, to the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson so as to enter the Minuteman contest. And like the best picture book biographies, the author is deftly interweaving elements of history into the context of the subject’s life. Rote bios focus on a person and never pull back that focus. Sweeney, however, starts with Dan, then pulls back to discuss how the family talked about the Civil War. After explaining what that was, and who Lincoln was, we see Dan’s contribution to that war. We pull back again when the president is assassinated then go back in to Dan reading myths and drawing gods and goddesses. Pull back again when they move to Concord and you can see the all-star line-up of his neighbors. Zero in again to him trying to find his way in the world. Do you see that? Sweeney is actually doing here what adult biographers do for their subjects, and the end result is all the stronger for it.
Now I’ve complained a little bit about the cover, and there’s good reason for that. No matter how many times I tell publishers, it is difficult for a librarian or bookseller to hand sell a black and white or sepia cover. Yeah yeah, Sarah Plain and Tall did all right back in the day, but that shiny Gold Newbery sticker was just about all the color it needed, wouldn’t you say? Plus, this cover looks like all those other monument and statue books. Often they’re perfectly fine, but it was be a huge stretch to call them exciting. Fortunately, this book has another Ace in its back pocket. A little something called illustrator Shawn Fields.
It was to my infinite surprise that I found that the man doesn’t appear to have done a picture book before. Norman Rockwellesque art galore, but little sequential art. I say this with surprise because Fields appears to have a natural talent for allowing the text and his art to work and flow together (part of this should be credited to the book’s art designer as well, for that matter). Now, again, when you have a rote picture book biography the temptation is to be very serious and staid with your realistic art. Creativity is often kept on a short leash (possibly in part because of the time constraints large publishers place on their artists). Fields, however, is capable of great grand shifts in perspective and attitude, sometimes within the same page. I admired his ability to turn the book from a horizontal read to a vertical one, when it meant gazing upon one statue or another. I loved his playfulness, as when the six Piccirilli brothers (the sons of Italian immigrants who carved Daniel’s art into stone) were rendered solely at the bottom of a page, the top halves of their heads popping up like Kirby. I loved how he would make scenes multicultural, like the image of families and soldiers hearing the news of Lincoln’s death, even if it wasn’t specified in the text. And most of all, I was very impressed by his ability to render some pictures with an almost cartoonish cast, and others with what sometimes almost amounted to photorealism on the page. Do I wish the book had been in color? I don’t. The cover, maybe, but the interior art, with all its cross-hatching and single-minded renderings, glows in black and white and gray.
When we say “Don’t judge a book by its cover” there should be a caveat attached. Maybe the amended injunction should be “Don’t judge every book by its cover.” We’re only human, after all. Sometimes, we’ll make mistakes. The mistake that you must avoid is judging this book on not just its cover but its subject matter as well. Rendered well, a truly great author could make reading the phone book an act of narrative thrust and zeal. As it turns out, Linda Booth Sweeney is a truly great author and Shawn Fields her uniquely talented partner in crime. Together, they’ve turned something as seemingly mundane as the act of creating the Lincoln Memorial into a true work of American history. It acknowledges the good, the bad, and the complicated. It makes no excuses, just hands over the facts. It avoids almost all fake dialogue and accounts for direct quotes in its backmatter. It’s a delight to read and remember. This marvelous book is deserving of your love. See to it that your love is worthy of it.
For ages 6-10.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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