Donna Janell Bowman is the author of the new children's picture book Abraham Lincoln's Dueling Words, which focuses on what happened when Lincoln was challenged to a duel in 1842. Her other books include Step Right Up and The Sioux. She lives near Austin, Texas.
Q: Why did you decide to write about this particular episode in Abraham Lincoln’s life?
A: This is an interesting question. I think there's a piece of me in everything I write, though I don't always recognize the deeper connection until later.
If you had asked me five years ago why this story spoke to me, I probably would have answered that I was fascinated by how the events leading up to Lincoln's duel showed Abraham Lincoln's flawed human side—something we rarely see, especially in children’s books.
Indeed, the duel shows us that Lincoln made great big mistakes that could have defined and limited him, but he overcame and learned from them. That's reassuring and inspiring, isn't it?
Then, about two years ago, while walking my dog (always my best thinking time), I was struck by a lightning bolt thought. Years ago, I had a heartbreaking fallout with somebody dear to me, and we still owe each other apologies.
Subconsciously, I think Lincoln's duel—resulting from both men's stubbornness after a verbal exchange—mirrored my own inner longing to make things right with this particular loved one. Lincoln’s redemption feels hopeful.
Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the book?
A: So very much research! Just as I would figure out one part of the history, another big question arose and sent me in another direction.
My picture book focuses on only the few weeks surrounding Lincoln’s duel with James Shields, but I needed to understand Lincoln when he was a young man. To get a sense of him as a man, I read many biographies and much of his letters preserved in the Collected Works.
Then, I had to get to the bottom of what instigated the duel. It turns out the catalyst was the 1842 proclamation issued by state auditor James Shields, the Illinois governor, and state treasurer. In it, citizens were ordered to pay taxes and school debts in specie (gold and silver), because Illinois state currency was almost worthless.
Imagine that! You can see how that knowledge inspired more questions, like what financial events led up to the devalued monies? It all pointed back to the Panic of 1837 and earlier. I had to dig back as far as Andrew Jackson’s banking decisions and specie circular during his 1829-37 presidency.
One thrilling part of the research was finding the originally-published Rebecca letters, Lincoln’s handwritten duel terms, and other primary sources.
Very little of my research could be identified in my brief text, but I had to understand it all to ensure historical accuracy.
Q: What do you think S.D. Schindler’s illustrations add to the book?
A: Aren’t Steve’s illustrations fantastic? I think he did a superb job of mixing light-hearted features that compliment my direct-address narrator’s folksy, light-hearted tone. And his chosen details accurately capture emotions and the 19th-century time.
Q: What do you hope young readers take away from the story?
A: Ultimately, I hope they find Lincoln more relatable. He was more than a monumentalized American figure, the Great Emancipator, and perhaps the most revered president in U.S. history.
Lincoln was a flawed human, like the rest of us. By learning how Lincoln overcame his own foibles, I hope kids will see that they, too, can overcome any perceived or real obstacles in their lives.
Also, I hope the story inspires a contemplative question: Had the Lincoln-Shields duel ended another way and Lincoln had never become president, how would the United States be different?
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Thanks for asking! I’m working on my school visit presentations, which will heat up dramatically next school year, thanks to the Bluebonnet nomination for Step Right Up.
And I’m revising my next book, King of the Tightrope, which is set to release in spring 2019 from Peachtree Publishers. It is a picture book biography, illustrated by Adam Gustavson, about Jean Francois Gravelet (The Great Blondin), the first man to engineer a tightrope across the Niagara Falls Gorge and perform on it in 1859-1860.
There will be great STEAM connections (science, technology, engineering, art, math), in addition to an inspiring story about how determination, hard work, and grit can lead to something beautiful.
I’ve got other books in the works, too, so stay tuned.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I feel like I’ve rambled on long enough, but thank you so much for inviting me to your blog, Deborah!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb