Thomas Jefferson, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything

“Thomas Jefferson, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything”

Written and illustrated by Maira Kalman

Nancy Paulson Books, An imprint of Penguin, 2014

“It is entirely possible that some future president, boy or girl, may cast eyes on Thomas Jefferson. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything, by the acclaimed artist-writer Maira Kalman, whose exuberant Matisse-like style, eye for unusual detail, and disarming bluntness enliven her breezy and typically offbeat life of Thomas Jefferson. She talks children’s language, too. Her subject is interested in “everything,” she enthuses in a text overflowing with capital letters and emphatic script. “I mean it. Everything.” So is Kalman. She illustrates and explicates on everything from Jefferson’s freckles (20 of them in all, she thinks), formidable linguistic talents, collecting mania, green thumb, fondness for ice cream, inventiveness and inexhaustible energy. Then, once she has us ensnared in her whimsical world, she hits us with five blunt pages on the horrors of slavery, calmly and cannily introducing the subject with a spare interior view of a cramped slave cabin, followed by a busy depiction of enslaved cooks tending Jefferson’s kitchen, which he enters obliviously each week, she tells us, merely to wind the grandfather clock. It’s about as much as readers aged 5 to 8 should be expected to absorb about Jefferson’s — and his country’s — shameful hypocrisy without having a sleep-inducing bedtime story descend into a nightmare-evoking all-nighter. Kalman, a subtle but shrewd moralizer, is right on the mark in summarizing Jefferson as “optimistic and complex and tragic and wrong and courageous.” Her book is hypnotically charming, abounding with striking little details that children will remember. Who wouldn’t be enthralled to know that the author of the Declaration of Independence had blazing red hair, liked peas, counted to 10 when he was angry, and had his frayed coats mended with old socks?”
– New York Times Sunday Book Review

“Beautiful and a little sad: the complex, brilliant, flawed nature of the third U.S. president. . . . Rich, impressionist colors and lively lines. . . . Poetic presentation. . . . Conveys clearly [Jefferson’s] contribution to the growing nation as founding father and president. . . . Kalman’s intimate address to listeners and readers works well. . . . Impressive complexity put artfully and respectfully within the grasps of young readers.”
– Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

“Vibrant gouache paintings. . . . The voice is that of a curious child reporting fascinating research findings . . . allows Kalman to supply a wealth of information. . . . Playful but informative, as quick witted as Jefferson himself, this will inspire young readers to learn more.”
– Booklist, Starred Review

“Striking picture book biography. . . . A colloquial, occasionally arch, and whimsical narrative, heavy with historical import and dotted with trivia. The vibrant imagery, frank content, and disarming language combine in a nuanced portrait that respects its subject and its audience in equal measure. At a time when the Founding Fathers are invoked frequently as heroes of lost, black-and-white propriety, a biography of such candor is welcome indeed. Direct, objective author’s notes about the people and places involved round out this substantial offering.”
– The Horn Book

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