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With the country mired in a civil war, Abraham Lincoln had a lot on his mind, so it's not surprising that the 16th president experienced vivid, troubling dreams.
"He was haunted by his dreams," says author and illustrator Lane Smith. In one dream, Lincoln found himself aboard an indescribable vessel moving toward an indistinct shore, Smith tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "He had these dreams apparently several times before momentous events of the Civil War, and in fact he had it the night before he was assassinated."
Smith, a Caldecott award-winning author and illustrator, has written a children's book inspired by Lincoln's dream life. In Abe Lincoln's Dream, a little girl on a tour of the White House meets the troubled ghost of the 16th president in the Lincoln bedroom — and she sets out to help answer his questions about how America turned out.
Though Smith is best known for his work in books like The Stinky Cheese Man, Abe Lincoln's Dream isn't his first foray into historical reimagining. He previously wrote John, Paul, George & Ben, a book about the Founding Fathers as children (which employs a healthy disregard for historical truth).
"I really enjoyed exploring that visual landscape of broadsides and 18th century illustration; so I was looking for another president to do just purely out of visual concerns," Smith says. "I stumbled on this little story of Abe Lincoln's dream, and it gave me an opportunity to study 19th century political cartoons and lithographs."
On Abraham Lincoln's troubled ghost
"My story ... takes place in the modern-day White House, and there's a little girl who gets separated from her tour group. And she winds up in the Lincoln bedroom, where she encounters Lincoln's ghost. And he's pacing the floor, and he's troubled by this dream, and he is not sure what it meant. 'Cause at the time that he left this Earth — 1865 — we had the Civil War, and he wasn't sure if the states were united and if there was equality, so he has these questions that are haunting him. So the little girl takes it upon herself to say, 'You know, I think we're in pretty good shape,' and they go on a little tour of modern-day United States, and they have this conversation." [Click here to read about the moment the little girl meets Lincoln's ghost.]
On the dark, angular style of his illustrations
"I've never subscribed to that theory ... that all children's books should be for all kids. When I was a kid, I liked odd and weird things, and I think I would've been insulted if someone gave me a book with, you know, happy little bunnies and a book on feelings or whatever. So throughout my career, I've always tried to, I guess, challenge the kid and do modern-looking artwork, to use a hackneyed term, I guess."
On other presidents he might consider as subjects for a future book
"You know, it's funny, with the topic of bullying in schools ... gotta do something with Teddy Roosevelt. You know: bully [pulpit]. But I really like the Founding Fathers. I love that period, with the Colonial garb and those powdered wigs. I'd love to revisit that sometime."
On what his books teach kids about the presidents
"I love the presidents just because I remember looking at their images in the classroom, but I would not consider myself to be any sort of educator. Mostly I'm in it for the laughs."