In 1860, Grace Bedell is an 11 year girl who has taken a liking to the gentleman from Springfield, Illinois who is campaigning for the presidency of the United States. While there is disagreement among her family members who is the right man for the job, Grace supports Lincoln. Grace accepts that her social status as both child and girl renders her opinion inconsequential, yet she devotes herself to the idea of helping Mr. Lincoln be the preferred candidate for all those whose opinion does matter. With consideration of Mr. Lincoln’s kind yet sad visage, Grace decides to encourage Mr. Lincoln to grow a beard to take after the fashion of the day. Grace writes to Mr. Lincoln with her suggestion, and waits for a reply despite being teased by others for thinking a man of such prestige would waste his time to respond to a small girl. Mr. Lincoln does respond, however, with kindness and an air of familiarity, pleasing Grace and impressing the community that doubted the power of a little girl. Time passes, and word is sent that Mr. Lincoln has won the presidency. On his way from Illinois to accept his position in Washington, D.C., Abraham Lincoln makes a stop in Grace Bedell’s hometown. Mr. Lincoln has taken Grace’s advice and grown a beard; the first President of the United States to wear a beard, all owing to the suggestion of a little girl.
I was attracted to Mr. Lincoln’s Whiskers for three reasons. First, I liked the alternate perspective of a major historical figure. In this case, the story’s point of view was of a young girl admiring Abraham Lincoln, rather than the more common approach of retelling the story of Abraham Lincoln. Second, I liked that the main character behaved and expressed thoughts that are representative of what might be typical of an 11 year old girl; often stories written about historical figures reveal omniscience which tends to be unbelievable. And lastly, I LOVED the fact that this story was based on actual correspondence between an 11 year old girl and Abraham Lincoln, thus making available to elementary students a fundamental aspect of research and historical inquiry – the primary source.
“She hurried over to her desk. She took a sheet of paper and dipped her feather-quill pen into a pot of ink. By the light of the moon she wrote…” (p. 8)
At the end of the story, a turn of the page reveals photographs of the actual correspondence between Grace Bedell (age 11 in 1860) and Abraham Lincoln, the gentleman from Springfield, IL who is campaigning for presidency of the United States. A very close friend of mine, who happens to be a veteran elementary school teacher and former middle school teacher, shared my enthusiasm when I told her about this surprise ending of Mr. Lincoln’s Whiskers. She pointed out that it is exceedingly difficult to teach students at the elementary level using historical primary sources that are relevant and meaningful (let alone, readable!). Often the language is difficult to understand, and the subject matter more often than not concerns the perspectives and events of adults. A connection to a major (and favorite) historical figure such as Abraham Lincoln, to the perspective of a child of the same time period is gold to a teacher dedicated to bringing relevance and depth to history in the classroom.
“The chug-a-chug got louder and louder. A bell rang. Gray clouds rose from the engine’s smoke stack. People shouted and waved flags. The long, dark train drew into the station.
Grace stood on her toes but she could not see over the stovepipe hats and feather bonnets. Where was Mr. Lincoln? Was he speaking? Should couldn’t hear with all the clapping and cheering.” (p. 25)
This story can be used in the classroom in a variety of ways. With a Lexile of 420, this would be a perfect selection for reading alone or partner-reading in lower elementary grades. Text is inlaid over full page illustrations that denote period costume and events. The story representation of the correspondence between Lincoln and Miss Bedell are written in proper letter format on white background. Mr. Lincoln’s Whiskers can be used to direct students in identifying and applying correspondence format. This story could also be a great supplement to US history lessons, exploring Abraham Lincoln and the presidential election of 1860, or exploring other historical elements like gender disparity. This story can be used to compare and contrast elements of the historical time period to its counterpart in the 21st century. And of course, this story allows primary sources to be brought into the elementary classroom in a relevant and inspiring manner. Using Miss Bedell’s letter as inspiration, students can compose their own letters to the President. With presidential election season upon us, it might also be an opportunity to introduce civic responsibilities.
AASL: 3.3.4 Create products that apply to authentic real-world contexts. 4.1.3 Respond to literature in various formats and genres
CCSS: CC.3.W.7 Conduct short research projects that build knowledge about a topic. CC.3.SL.1.d Explain own ideas and understanding in light of discussion.
For some ideas on how to incorporate Mr. Lincoln’s Whiskers, check out the links below:
Children’s Literature: Social Studies: https://childrenslit-socialstudies.wikispaces.com/Mr.+Lincoln’s+Whiskers+Reinforcing+Activity
Smithsonian National Museum of American History Reading guide for Mr. Lincoln’s Whiskers: http://amhistory.si.edu/ourstory/pdf/lincoln/reading_whiskers.pdf
Education World: Five parts of a letter: http://www.educationworld.com/a_tsl/archives/07-1/lesson003.shtml
American (2011). Crosswalk of the common core standards and the standards for the 21st-century Learner. Huron St. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/guidelinesandstandards/commoncorecrosswalk/pdf/CrosswalkEnglishStandardAll1-4.pdf
Reading is a window to the world. (2007). . Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/guidelinesandstandards/learningstandards/AASL_Learning_Standards_2007.pdf
Winnick, K. B. (1996). Mr. Lincoln’s whiskers. Honesdale, Pa: Boyds Mills Press.