Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Once, dear children, Lincoln had his own birthday ...

In this 200th year of his birth, we've seen a lot of books about Abraham Lincoln; the facts of his life aren't really history anymore, they are almost legend (there are 37 books for youth in my library's catalog and I'll bet most of them don't skim beyond the surface of the log cabin, Gettysburg and the assassination). I learned a lot in reading Candace Fleming's The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary. Joining 2009's Lincoln-iana is the audio version of Russell Freedman's 1988 Newbery-Award winning Lincoln: A Photobiography.

Freedman's skill as a writer of nonfiction for children is how he takes the complex ideas and boils them down to what you need to know, and then delivers those ideas in simple, yet informative prose. In his books that I've read, he's also a master at the picture caption. In this biography, we get the legend augmented by some less well-known facts: Lincoln suffered from depression, he had a high, reedy voice, no one he knew ever called him Abe.

This audiobook is narrated by Robert Petkoff. I think he reads this way too fast, and too precisely. If he weren't reading so quickly, it wouldn't sound like he was pronouncing each and every word with perfect diction. This sounds somewhat artificial and is tiring to listen to. And, I didn't like the other choice he made either: Freedman inserts a number of quotations into the text, and Petkoff alters his voice -- usually deeper and more "statesmen-like" -- when he reaches these places in the narrative. More artificiality. He does make a consistent effort to voice Lincoln in the high, reedy speaking voice Freedman tells us was the president's.

A brief interview with Russell Freedman follows the audiobook, and I always appreciate this glimpse into the writer's process. Alas, the first few questions of the interview were about how Freedman uses photos (or other illustrations) in his nonfiction. Which only points out the sad lack of photographs in this medium. The audiobook includes an "Enhanced CD" of the book's photographs which I could not make work in my computer. Thus I missed the photos even more.

I'm glad to see more nonfiction available in audio format. (I've listened to several adult literary nonfiction and find it much easier than reading them.) But, why does a book that has the word "photo" in the title leap out as a candidate for audio interpretation? I suspect it was more the timely subject of the biography that led to this particular title. Fortunately, there are a few more titles in the pipeline that might be more listen-able: Lincoln's fellow bicentenarian (and actual littermate, as they were born on the very same day!) Charles Darwin, for example.

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