Think School Visits Only Help the Students? Think Again!

Hello, friends!

As I sit in my dining room on this cold and rainy Saturday, I am reflecting on the thirty-four schools that I have visited since mid-September. Yes, thirty four! Tomorrow, I leave for a full week of school visits in Houston, and more schools are on my calendar after that, so the number is rising. I owe so much to the Texas Bluebonnet Award nomination, and the nomination to other state award lists, too. They are lovely accolades for Step Right Up, but the award nods have also provided these glorious opportunities to talk to young readers. Special thanks to Texas Library Association!

I have been honored by each school invitation and humbled by the dedication I have witnessed in the real rockstars—librarians, administrators, and educators. If you are among those noble professions, thank you!

Truth be known, the flurry of 2018-19 school visits has changed me in profound ways.

Every school visit gifts me with new perspectives on the unique challenges for schools in wildly varying economic and demographic environments. I have presented in wealthy schools, where every brand-name-wearing second-grader has a smart phone in their designer backpack, and a laptop provided for them. And I have presented in schools that have bars on the windows, metal detectors, and hand-me-down-wearing third-graders who worried that my presentation clicker was a taser. (There’s only one way an 8-year-old could make that assumption.)

Some kids have challenges. Some kids are challenging. But every kid deserves the best that we can offer. When I stand before them, I feel the responsibility deeply. We all know that books can offer windows and mirrors for young readers. And, for those readers who haven’t yet fallen in love with books, meeting a real author who failed many times before any success—one who is as flawed and human as everybody else— can be enlightening. And, as some studies suggest, author visits inspire kids to read and write more. 
During this Bluebonnet season with Step Right Up, while I share my personal connection to Doc and Jim’s story, and as I share my writing, research, and revision process, the kindness theme takes center stage. I offer a bit about Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, too, which is all about Honest Abe’s big mistake—political mudslinging that almost cost him his life—and how the lesson he learned from the resulting duel taught him to be a better man. It’s a story about learning from our mistakes and about the power of words. It’s a story about character—kissing cousin to kindness.

Authors often subconsciously gravitate toward stories with particular social issues. I didn’t set out to be a kindness author, but I’m awfully grateful these days that I have two books that offer a bit of light when darkness creeps into our internal or external worlds. During these exceptionally divisive and volatile times, I think it’s important that adults offer EVERY child a sense of hope, a sense of potential, a promise that, though we don’t always have a choice about where we live or the stuff we own, we all have a choice about HOW we treat others. As authors, we have a responsibility to every one of these kids and to the adults who dedicate their careers to nurturing and educating them.

Perusing an 1859 newspaper. Research can be cool!
4th grade writing workshop.

I watch kids’ faces during my presentations and in my writing workshops, looking for content that especially connects. It isn’t always obvious at first. In the moments before and after my presentations, there are kids who want to chat. Sometimes, they share something funny or random. Sometimes, they want to share something that’s weighing on their young hearts. Often, stories are whispered into my ear about a dying grandmother, a cousin who hit his dog with a shoe, an uncle in prison, a school bully. Sometimes, they tell me that they want to be an author, too. (Cue the confetti!)

It is a special honor when I witness the seemingly-least-likely kid in the room find a spark of magic in their own imaginings. I see it in the wide eyes, hands in the air in response to a question, the random hug by the child who thanks me for writing a book about kindness. I saw it last week when a third grade boy stopped me in the hall of his school and said, “I’m writing a story about you today.” He was that kid, y’all. You know the one—the kid often thought of as a problem. He gets it, this kindness thing. And, maybe, just maybe, he gets the reading and writing thing a little bit more today, too. If I transferred a little word wonder to him, well, my work here is done. And I am a better person for it.


If you are a library or education rock star, thank you, thank you, thank you for all you do to inspire, nurture, and educate OUR kids ! What would we do without you?

If you are an author or illustrator colleague, keep sharing your passion for young readers and the books that can inspire them. What we do matters!

For more information about my presentations and writing workshops, click here  or contact me. I would be happy to travel to anywhere in the United States and beyond. If I’m not quite what you’re looking for, please reach out to another author about visiting your school or library. We’re all in it for the kids.

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


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 the 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).

Lincoln — What Sparked Lincoln’s Duel & His Unusual Fight Terms

From Abe Lincoln’s Yarns (A. McClure, 1901)
From Abraham Lincoln’s Political Career through 1860
From Abraham Lincoln’s Political Career (Morrill, A.G., 1917)

In the mid-nineteenth century, the state of Illinois was experiencing a financial crisis, and the two political parties—the Whigs and the Democrats—were in constant conflict about how to resolve the issues. In the mix was Lincoln, a Whig lawyer, and then-former legislator and Democratic state auditor James Shields.

In 1842, James Shields, along with the Illinois governor and treasurer, signed an unpopular proclamation that required citizens to pay their taxes and school debts with gold or silver instead of the devalued Illinois bank notes. As you can imagine, the action did not sit well with citizens in possession of little gold or silver. The Whigs saw an opportunity to use the proclamation as a weapon against the Democrats. (Read other posts for more information, beginning with this one)

Between August 19 and September 9, a series of letters addressed to the editor of the Whig paper, Sangamo Journal, from a fictitious farmer’s wife named Aunt Rebecca, pointed an accusatory and defaming finger at James Shields and the Democratic party. The letters were followed by a September 16th poem (related to the Rebecca letters), signed by fictitious Cathleen. The poem and likely two of the Rebecca letters were written by Mary Todd and her friend Julia Jayne. Mary was quite a satirical writer, and she was already very opinionated about politics. Lincoln only admitted to writing the second Rebecca letter, which landed a blow directly at Shields. The letter was a doozy! You can read a transcript of it, in all its colloquial color in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln here.

James Shields, then the Illinois state auditor, was MAD, of course!  He wrote a letter to Lincoln on September 17, 1842. It was delivered by way of Shields’ friend, John D. Whiteside. The letter is written in formal style with gentlemanly niceties. Until Shields gets to the point. He writes, “I have been the object of slander, vituperation and personal abuse…” He later explains that the editor of the newspaper gave up Lincoln’s name. “I will not take the trouble of enquiring into the reason of all this, but I will take the liberty of requiring full, positive and absolute retraction of all offensive allusions used by you in these communications, in relation to my private character and standing as a man, as an apology for the insults conveyed in them. This may prevent consequences…”  That last sentence is a thinly-veiled threat.

As was custom, Lincoln returned a reply that also began with a gentlemanly tone, but he soon landed his own accusatory blow. He writes, “you say you have been informed, through the medium of the editor of the Journal, that I am the author of certain articles in that paper which you deem personally abusive of you: and without stopping to enquire whether I really am the author…

I suspect Lincoln enjoyed wielding this technicality against his political foe. He later admitted only to writing one of the letters, not all of them. He could have simply apologized for the letter he wrote, but he didn’t. Maybe because he would have had to reveal Mary Todd and Julia Jayne’s involvement. Or maybe he was just being stubborn. Whatever the case, Lincoln’s response let Shields know that he didn’t appreciate the assumption. The back-and-forth notes escalated from there until Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel. Lincoln, likely with the counsel of friends, chose broadswords instead of pistols. And he spelled out very unusual terms for the field of honor.

Lincoln’s “second” was Dr. Elias H. Merryman, a military man with duel experience. In fact, many sources imply that Merryman was a fan of dueling and hoped that the Lincoln-Shields fight would proceed. Other Lincoln friends also rushed to Bloody Island, hoping for a peaceful resolution. They included William Butler and Albert T. Bledsoe. James Shields’ second was John D. Whiteside, and his additional friends were Dr. Thomas M. Hope, and Gen. W.D. Ewing.

In my book, Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, only two of Lincoln’s dueling terms appear on the page. Below are all four of the terms (with corrected spellings) from Lincoln’s handwritten instructions to Merryman, his second.

1st Weapons — Cavalry broadswords of the largest size precisely equal in all respects — and such as now used by the cavalry company at Jacksonville—

2nd Position — A plank ten feet long, & from nine to twelve inches broad to be firmly fixed on edge — on the ground, as the line between us which neither is to pass his foot over upon forfeit of his life— Next a line drawn on the ground on either side of said plank & parallel with it, each at the distance of the whole length of the sword and three feet additional from the plank; and which lines the passing of his own such line by either party during the fight shall be deemed a surrender of the contest— The fight in no case to last more than fifteen minutes—

3- Time — On Thursday evening at five o’clock if you can get it so; but in no case to be at a greater distance of time than Friday evening at five o’clock

4th Place — Within three miles of Alton on the opposite side of the river, the particular spot to be agreed on by you—

Any preliminary details coming within the above rules, you are at liberty to make at your discretion; but you are in no case to swerve from the above rules, or to pass beyond their limits—


incomplete image of final terms

Above is Lincoln’s letter (incomplete). See the hand-written letter, along with a transcript, at the Library of Congress page here.


For more information about the Lincoln-Shields duel, see links from the book page for Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words here.