TLA, A book launch, school visits, Classes I’m Teaching, Oh My!

Life-sized Abe Lincoln is ready for photo-opps at my April 15th launch party.

Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words

Much has happened within the last month. The book launch trailer for Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words released, which makes me all kinds of giddy. Then, on April 1, the book itself hit bookstore shelves. I hope you will get your own copy from your favorite independent bookstore and share it with the young people in your life. I think you will agree that it has powerful tie-ins with character education. And I employed a fun, direct-address narrator that makes it great for read-alouds, too. Be sure to read the expanded content, linked to the book page here. While you’re on that page, if you’re a librarian or teacher, consider sharing the full bibliography and my working timeline with your students. Everyone will be surprised to learn how much peripheral research was required. And don’t miss the teacher’s guide here. 

Though the book released April 1, the official launch party for Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words will be Sunday, April 15, 2018, at 2:00 pm at Book People in Austin. If you’re in the area, please come by for a reading, snacks, trivia, and a photo opp. You can view/print the Lincoln launch flyer for full information.

Step Right Up

Taking photos of your kids in the bluebonnets is a Texas tradition that has taken on a new meaning for me this year:)

Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter, continues to be embraced by schools and families around the country. Entire schools are taking the Step Right Up Kindness Pledge. How humbling and lovely! As many of you know, because of my personal connection to horses and my love of all animals, this story is infused with an extra piece of my heart. Now, SRU is on at least four state award lists, including Kansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and the Texas Bluebonnet master list for 2018-19. As a native Texan, I admit to being especially honored by the Bluebonnet nod. At the 2018 TX Library Association (TLA) conference in Dallas this past weekend, I had a blast meeting librarians from around the state during the Bluebonnet speed dating event and signing. What these remarkable literary champions may not realize is that we authors think of them as the rock stars. After all, every educator spends their career to changing young lives every day. Wow!


Honored to see Step Right Up acknowledged for the 2018-19 Bluebonnet master list.

Other highlights from TLA’18 included catching up with other authors, meeting TLA committee and staff members, collecting more books, signing both of my books in the author area, attending the Bluebonnet luncheon, and being stopped by KidLitTV for an interview. You can see that here. 

School visits

I’ve had a lot of school visits in Texas this year, and I look forward to traveling to Louisiana for school visits in May. During my presentations, I offer my personal connection to my books, my writing and research process (aimed to reinforce classroom goals), expanded content, and a conversation about how one person can make a difference with kindness and how words are a super power. During the 2018-19 Bluebonnet season, I hope to visit as many schools as possible.

You can view/print my 2018 School visit flyer here. Email me for more information. 

Upcoming Classes that I’m Teaching

If you’re a librarian or teacher who dreams of being published, stay tuned. I might be offering an online class or webinar just for you!

If you’re interested in having me critique your manuscript, of if you’re interested in hiring a writing coach, donna@donnajanellbowman.comemail me.

June 9, 2018—I will be teaching a one-day workshop on writing picture book biographies for the San Antonio chapter of SCBWI. Registration is open.

June-July—I’ll be teaching an online class about picture book biographies. Stay tuned for details. Email if you would like more information.

Fall 2018 (event not yet announced)—I’ll be speaking at an SCBWI conference about writing query letters, synopsis, and cover letters. Stay tuned.

Subscribe to my e-newsletter to stay up to date with what I’m offering.

That’s quite enough for this month, don’t you think? Thank you for taking the time to read.

Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words is on Shelves today. Cue the thank yous

Donna at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois

I’ve spent the last several weeks sharing extended content about writing and researching Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words. Now that the April 1, 2018 official launch date has arrived, I am reflecting on the people who have supported the book’s journey and my publishing endeavors.


Texas-sized thanks to:

My family—Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words began in 2012 for me. In the six years of research, writing, rewriting, and revising, life continued. As a gauge, my youngest son was twelve-years-old when I began this project. He’s now a 6’3″ high school junior, and we’re looking at colleges. For authors, their books and projects are woven into the fabric of a family in multiple ways. Beyond my writing cave, my human family cheered and encouraged me in small and large ways. To Chris, Ethan, Justin, Pat, Nettie Ruth, Christopher, Stevie, Lori, Sean, Scott, Sean, aunts, cousins—I am grateful for your love, support, and cheerleading!

My agent, Erin Murphy, has believed in this and my other books for many years, and I am lucky to have her in my corner. We originally had a long professional courtship before she offered representation. It’s an interesting story that speaks to the business side of agenting, the evolution of a writer, and the age-old advice about never giving up. To this day, it is still a thrill when I see Erin’s name in my inbox. She is the real deal—a knowledgeable industry veteran with the keen eye of an editor, a heart of gold, and the godmother to all my books.

My agent Erin Murphy, editor Kathy Landwehr, and author friend Cynthia Levinson toasted the deal for Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words during a 2013 conference.

Peachtree editor Kathy Landwehr and I met when she critiqued the Lincoln manuscript during the 2013 Austin SCBWI conference. By the time we met in person, she had already contacted Erin to express interest. Immediately after the conference, Kathy and I continued our conversation about my manuscript in the hotel lobby on, what we now refer to as, the Lincoln couch. I am so grateful that Kathy’s vision for Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words matched my own. We’ve developed a friendship during the process with Lincoln—one that often comes through in mutual snarkiness and banter. What fun, right?  In fact, our kindred styles led to a second book deal, King of the Tightrope, scheduled to release in 2019. I owe such love to Peachtree Publishers and the remarkable staff that wrangled everything from art direction to marketing and publicity and conference details. Darby, Elyse, Barbara, Jonah, Nicki, Courtney, Emily, etc.—thank you!

Illustrator S.D. Schindler deserves an extra helping of sunshiney rainbows for infusing the illustrations with the perfect blend of fun, frivolity, and historical accuracy. My telling would not be the same without Steve’s gorgeous art!

Dr. James Cornelius, Curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum was
patient with my many questions, generous with his responses, and honest with his vetting of my manuscript. I feel honored that he was willing blurb the book, and in a way that nods to my narrative: “A rollicking story, well told with all the original color.”

My friends and critique partners offered feedback on early versions of this manuscript, even before Erin or Kathy saw it. There is no better feedback than what comes from experienced writers, and I hit the jackpot in that way. There are many people to thank, but allow me to single out Carmen Oliver, Cynthia Levinson, Samantha ClarkChris Barton, and Don Tate. And, during one of the profoundly affecting Highlights Foundation workshops I attended, Peggy Thomas, and Carolyn Yoder saw the first draft.

For the past year, I’ve been honored to meet many librarian educators while speaking at schools about Step Right UpWhat a special group of people! I am awed by the passion and commitment they have for connecting books with young readers. They know the power of books as escapism, therapy, hope, and dreams. I thank them all for supporting my previous books, for being literacy champions, and for already embracing Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words.

Next up—a book launch celebration at Austin’s Book People. April 15th at 2:00 pm. If you’re in the Austin area, I hope you’ll come by to hear my reading and presentation. You’ll learn a lot more about Lincoln’s rascally mistake that landed him on the field of honor. And there will be eats and drinks, too. After all, April 15 is tax day, so you know there will be bubbly on hand.



Lincoln—Character Education

As a teenager, Lincoln studied an arithmetic book that survives today and is now part of the Herndon-Weik Collection. In the bottom left corner of one page, there is a faded verse that Lincoln wrote. A reproduced enhanced version is below. It seems Lincoln recognized his rascally tendencies at a young age. What a great way to spark conversation about character education.

Character Education in Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words:

There are many character-education connections in Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words. In 1842, Lincoln wrote a politically-motivated letter to the editor of the Sangamo Journal that criticized the Democrats and poked fun at State Auditor James Shields in a way that crossed the line of propriety. Lincoln later referred to his letter as the meanest thing he had ever done. In the end, he had a decision to make. Would he allow his great big mistake to define him? Or would it motivate him to be a better man.

Click the Teacher’s Guide image below to view and print the full document. You can also see it on the Peachtree Publishers website here. 

There are great organizations that focus on character education. You might want to look at these as a start:

George Lucas Educational Foundation


A reading of an 1890 Account of the Lincoln-Shields Duel

In 1890, John George Nicolay and John Hay— President Abraham Lincoln’s secretaries, published the ten-volume biography: Abraham Lincoln: A History, which you can see on here.  You can hear a Librivox reading of the chapter related to the Lincoln-Shields duel and the two other challenges it sparked here.  Be aware that this reading is 18-minutes long.


James Shields & His Working Relationship with Lincoln Before & During Civil War

To set up the events that later transpired between Lincoln and Shields, without turning this post into a tome, I hope you will forgive my necessary jumps in time and assumptions of knowledge below. Bear with me.

James Shields- Where’d he come from?

James Shields was born in Dungannon, Ireland. His 1840 U.S. Citizenship application shows a May 17, 1810 birthday, his tombstone in Carrollton, Missouri shows a birthdate of 5-18-1810, but scholars who have examined Irish records believe he was actually born May 6, 1806.

By about age five, James’ father died, leaving his mother Catherine to care for three sons. Luckily for them, the Shields’ family owned land—an unusual thing for a Catholic family at that time. In fact, it appears that James Shields was born into a family of relative prosperity, though those fates might have later changed during the 1847 Irish Potato famine.

James first attended a “hedge school,” which was Irish Catholic defiance against English penal education laws that were prejudiced against them. The schools were often run by itinerant teachers who taught Gaelic and secretly added Irish history to regular academics. Later, James was enrolled in a Protestant grammar school in Carrickmore, Ireland, where he was taught Greek, Latin, Irish, English. At some point, he entered divinity school but left when he decided to migrate to the U.S. as a young man—arriving between the ages of 18-24. By all indications, the 5’9″ man was intelligent and book-loving.

It is unlikely that Shields came to America with any notable amount of money. He worked as a merchant sailor for a while, though he took a three-month break from the sea to teach the children of a Scottish laird when his ship ran aground nearby. He did return to the sea, but while entering New York Harbor one day, a sudden wind caused a flailing ruckus of swinging masts and other ship parts. In the fray, Shields was injured. For three months, he recuperated in a hospital run by nuns. It was then that he de decided to give up sailing and remain in America.

Shields, Law, Politics, Lincoln

Time passed and James Shields settled in Kaskaskia, Illinois, where he opened a school for adults and children until he set his sights on a law career. He worked as a law clerk during two years of intense study, then passed the bar exam in 1832.

People of Irish descent faced a great deal of prejudice in the United States at the time, but Shields was a determined and driven man and deeply loyal to his chosen country. An eager soldier, he enlisted in the Army to fight in the Mexican War and the Black Hawk War, rising in rank to Brigadier General. It would not be his last military action.

By late 1830’s, Shields (a diehard Democrat) and Abraham Lincoln (a Whig leader) were both legislators and lawyers. When the Illinois capital was moved to Springfield, both men moved with it.

Lincoln, being a progressive kind of politician, lobbied with his party and won financial concessions to improve Illinois infrastructure. In other words, Illinois increased its debt at the suggestion of Lincoln and his friends. That’s important to consider when we’re tempted to demonize Shields and other government officials later. Such debt was justified by the needs of citizens, but it came with a more profound cost. There were a number of causes for 1837 U.S. Financial Panic and ultimate Illinois crisis, including Andrew Jackson’s 1836 Specie Circular, the closing of the Second Bank of the United States, defaulted foreign loans, and mismanagement of state finances and debt. The money of the State Bank of Illinois was suddenly worth a fraction of its face value, and some banks closed.

Shields & Lincoln Work Together On an Issue in 1837

Shields didn’t entirely agree with his Democratic party about how to address the problem. He called for a bipartisan solution to bail out the banks, calling on Whig leader Abraham Lincoln to collaborate on a plan of action.

A quick aside: When the State Bank of Illinois was first chartered in ~1816, a legislative act stated that, in the event of bank failure, the state’s governor, auditor, and treasurer were “authorized and required” to refuse the bank’s money in payment of taxes. Remember that in a moment.

The Shields-Lincoln proposal made its way into law, and it essentially prevented more banks from being shut down. It worked. For a while

In 1841, Shields became Illinois’ state auditor of public accounts. In 1842, the financial crisis spiked. There was a run on the banks—people rushed to withdraw their savings, removing monies from circulation. When a third bank went bust, Shields took drastic action. As State Auditor, he did what he was “authorized and required” to do. He, the governor, and the treasurer issued a proclamation that required all Illinois citizens to pay their taxes in gold or silver (specie) rather than with State Bank of Illinois bank notes. The proclamation incited Lincoln’s politically driven Rebecca letter—which led to Shields challenging Lincoln to a duel. Read my picture book Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words to learn more.

How did Lincoln and Shields Work Together Toward a Common Cause During the Civil War?

Though they appeared to have maintained a courteous professional relationship after the “affair of honor,” I found no evidence that Lincoln and Shields were close friends, which isn’t surprising since Shields and Stephen Douglas, one of Lincoln’s biggest political rivals, were especially chummy. When Douglas ran against Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election, Sheilds stumped for Douglas, which means he campaigned for him. But, when Lincoln won the presidency and South Carolina seceded from the Union—sparking ten more states to follow—Shields vowed to help Lincoln save the Union.

On April 12, 1861, when Fort Sumter was fired upon and the Civil War began, fifty-five-year-old Shields was ready to re-enlist in the army. He was soon called on as a commander with the rank of brigadier general. He was involved in several campaigns, including a skirmish with Confederate Stonewall Jackson. Even a bullet to the shoulder didn’t sway Shields from his military devotion and acumen. You can read a bit about some of his Civil War battles here. Lincoln suggested that Shields be promoted to Major General, a two-star rank, but other military officials disagreed.

Though Shields didn’t work directly with Lincoln during the Civil War, both men fought in different ways for the same common cause.

After the war, Shields went on to become governor of the Oregon Territory, and he remains the only U.S. senator to have represented three states: Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri.

For more information about James Shields, check out Courage and Country: James Shields; More than Irish Luck, by Sean Callan (1st Books, 2004).