We love a good Abraham Lincoln biography, and when we found out a father–daughter team wrote It’s Up to You, Abe Lincoln, we needed to know more!
It’s Up to You, Abe Lincoln is on sale now and is the first in a series of biographies co-authored by Leila and Tom Hirschfeld. (Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Amelia Earhart are next.) The biographies focus on the life- and history-altering decisions made by historical figures. The books prompt middle readers to place themselves in the past and give a shot at predicting the decisions. It’s Up to You, Abe Lincoln is fact-paced, funny, and humanizes Lincoln for young readers.
Leila recently took time to chat in between classes in her last semester at Harvard University, where she is majoring in history. Tom, who’s the best-selling author of books like Business Dad: How Good Businessmen Can Make Great Fathers (and Vice Versa), joined the call from New York.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: Why did you choose to co-author a biography on Abraham Lincoln?
Leila Hirschfeld: Growing up, I really loved history and reading biographies. In high school, I took Latin and became interested in Julius Caesar and his writing. My dad and I had been talking about doing a father–daughter project since we have a lot of similar interests. We thought a biography focusing on Caesar’s 10 most important life choices could be fun and challenging to write. Phoebe Yeh, who is now our editor at Random House, had a great recommendation to start instead with four figures from American history. We though Abraham Lincoln would be an important and fascinating person to begin with.
Tom Hirschfeld: We hope the series continues, and we will be able to fit Julius Caesar in!
DCHM: What kind of research did you do to get ready to write It’s Up to You, Abe Lincoln?
LH: We read a ton of books about Lincoln, along with reading a lot of Lincoln’s letters and speeches. Something very interesting is that, while Lincoln is known for writing and speeches, he is pretty much self-taught—he did not have a lot of formal education. Then we went to Springfield, IL, and visited his home, his law offices, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. There, we had the special chance to meet with the curator, James Cornelius, who was really helpful.
DCHM: Were there any surprises as part of the research process?
TH: One big surprise for us was how funny he was. He is often shown in photographs without a smile, but that is partly because of how photos were taken back then, when people had to sit for so long. And a lot of his speeches were pretty serious. But he had a lot of great jokes, and I think humor was very useful to Lincoln. He used it to cheer himself up when things were going badly, he used it to make a point, and he used it to disarm hostile audiences. A favorite example we like to remember is during his Senate campaign against Stephen Douglas, when somebody accused him of being two-faced. He said, “If I were really two-faced, do you think I’d be wearing this one?”
DCHM: Talk about the process of co-authoring—did you break up tasks or assign chapters?
LH: After the reading and research process, we decided together what Lincoln’s most important life choices were. And to do that, we looked at decisions that changed his life or history in general. They had to be tough, maybe not-so-obvious choices to make the reader think.
TH: Hopefully, something dramatic and revealing.
LH: We each made a list separately of these important moments, then pooled our ideas together, and narrowed the list down. That was one of our favorite parts of the process: figuring out what his main life choices were. We each drafted chapters and then swapped them back and forth to get the same tone and language for the middle-school audience. And then very practically, we had to keep my school schedule in mind, and set deadlines that fell after my school breaks.
DCHM: Are there points where you disagreed on content or tone? How did you resolve it?
TH: There are definitely times when Leila saved us from including things kids might not have related to!
LH: When reading my dad’s writing, I would try to catch any outdated slang or words that I thought were too advanced for the reading level. But it was also so fun to bring in our different voices.
DCHM: What was the hardest part of the co-writing process? The easiest?
LH: Choosing Lincoln’s choices was the most fun, but also the most contentious. For example, I might have a favorite moment I thought was really interesting, but my dad thought wasn’t relevant. But that was the only point in process when we would fight it out.
TH: Another challenge for us was giving voice to the people in Abraham Lincoln’s world with an eye to choosing diverse and representative people. For example, Frederick Douglass is a figure who appears very often in our book. Douglass served as a kind of conscience for Lincoln, and his own opinion of Lincoln evolved dramatically over the course of the Civil War. And Lincoln had a huge amount of respect for Douglass. So we included Douglass because he is amazing and fascinating in his own right and, since he was almost always on the right side of history, Douglass can express a modern view of what was going on at the time.
DCHM: How did you write together and strike a consistent, humorous tone?
LH: For us, adding humor to this book actually made it easier to write! I think we are both natural humorists. We love making puns at every opportunity and we love silly jokes and word play, to the point that we annoy everyone around us, especially my mom! So humor is a balance to all the tough historical issues we are writing about, and I think I can speak for my dad in saying that adding humor made the process more enjoyable.
TH: I agree—humor was also important for the story, because it helps us to get ideas across and helps us deal with life in all of its complexity.
DCHM: What do you think your mom and your wife say: Who is funnier?
LH: That’s a tough one. Dad, what do you think?
TH: Knowing her, she’d probably say, “You’re both so funny in different ways.”
LH: You’re right, she would say that!
TH: She’s a good sport. It’s Up to You, Abe Lincoln is dedicated to her. She really is the editor of first resort for both Leila and me. She and I have been together for nearly 40 years.
LH: And I’ve been with her my whole life!
DCHM: What would you like readers to take away from the book?
TH: Number one, history is a lot more interesting than many textbooks would lead us to think. It is more complicated; there are a lot of surprises, and a lot of irony. And by no means is it inevitable that things end up happening the way they do. The second thing I would say is that people really do make a difference…
LH: I was going to say that!
TH: …and that the best way to learn about those people is through their choices.
LH: I will add that by focusing on these historical figures’ decisions, I hope it inspires kids to think very carefully about the decisions they make themselves. Individual choices that might seem small—such as standing up to a bully or speaking up for something they believe in—can make a huge difference in other people’s lives.