By Peggy Thomas
Happy Book Birthday! Today my new book Lincoln Clears A Path comes out from Calkins Creek Press, with amazing illustrations by Stacy Innerst.
In a previous interview I talked about my struggle to find the narrative thread in that book. I couldn’t manufacture the thread or it would ring false. I had to reveal it through research. Once I did, I also found the key events that would, like stepping stones, lead the reader from beginning to end through the story.
The thread that I pulled from all my research was Lincoln cleared a path. He had a lifelong drive to help others. “Clearing a path” was a phrase he used in letters and speeches.
The first main path-clearing event occurred when Abe was seven in Indiana. He literally cleared a path through the forest. He felled trees, cleared brush, pulled stumps, and plowed fields. I could hear the sound of an ax on a tree trunk, a scythe sweeping across grass, a tree stump being released from the ground, and a voice encouraging an ox. I wanted kids to hear it too. “Thwack! Abe helped his father fell trees. Swish! He cleared brush. Thwump! He pulled stumps. Yah! He plowed fields.”
In Rob Sanders NF FEST post last year he said that repetition can “evoke emotions, provide continuity, and leave a lasting impression with listeners.” I would add that it also provides indicators or sign posts for your reader. Every time the reader sees “Thwack! Swish! Thwump! Yah!” they’ll know the scene is another example of Lincoln’s path-clearing.
I used it seven times, not on every page. That would have become tedious. Sometimes I only used one sound. “He pulled off his boots and--swish—waded across the stream.”
I didn’t always use the sound effects literally, but also metaphorically as in, “Abe marveled at how the founding fathers--Thwack! Swish! Thwump! Yah!--cleared a path for folks like him."
Of course, to show how someone cleared a path, you have to show the obstacles too. By 1862, the war was going badly and Lincoln’s son had just died. “The president’s world seemed darker than the densest forest at midnight. How would he get his family and America through this heartache?”
By this point I’ve (hopefully) set up the metaphor and its meaning, so the next 4 double-page spreads simply reveal Lincoln’s ground-breaking acts accompanied by one of the sounds in the illustration.
I end with Lincoln's greatest path-clearing effort, the Emancipation Proclamation, and this quote:
“’Liberty to all’…clears the path for all—gives hope to all.”
Now it's time for cake!!
Peggy Thomas is the author of dozens of NF books for children including Full of Beans, AFBFA Book of the Year.
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