Thursday, February 28, 2013

Abraham's Journey: A Celebration of the American Dream (A Schoolhouse Crew Review)


 Our family was part of the crew team reviewing Abraham's Journey: A Celebration of the American Dream.  We received a paperback copy (retail price $14.99), but it is also available as an e-book from the website Inspiring the American Dream.  The plot of this short story, written by Kathleen Basmadjian, PhD and Robert K. Basmadjian, Jr.,  travels through history.  The story opens with a young boy's family saying that money was tight, and while enough to meet their needs, it would not stretch to extras like Christmas gifts.  The boy, Abraham, decided to surprise his family by earning money and buying them gifts.  Abraham Lincoln appears to the boy, and takes him on a journey to meet other historical figures who exemplify hard work and perseverance.  In the end, Abraham has enough money to not only purchase gifts for his family, but a surplus of money to provide gifts to the less fortunate. 

Cover Art for Abraham's Journey: Inspiring the American DreamI have always loved Abraham Lincoln.  I think I checked one particular copy of his biography out of my grade school's library at least four times every year starting in the third grade.  Seeing President Lincoln on the cover, I was excited to read a new story that involved him.  I wish I had been as excited at the end as I was at the beginning.   I have no problem at all with historical figures "breaking the fourth wall," and in fact, one of my favorite attractions at Disney World  - The American Adventure in EPCOT - features Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain as the hosts of a review of American history.   Perhaps it is impossible for a short story to exceed that standard, but this story fell disappointingly short for me.   As much as I agree with the authors' underlying message of working hard to achieve your dreams,  I think the book got in its own way.

While I understand how the historical figures fit into the plot, they were not in chronological order; a meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was followed by an encounter with Amelia Earhart and then a fast-forward to meeting Mark Zuckerberg.  While there were short biographies of the historical figures at the end of the book, I would have liked to have seen more information about them, and why Abraham Lincoln was introducing young Abraham to them, incorporated into the story itself.  As an adult, I can understand the reason why, but the poor chronology made it seem like Earhart was there as a "token female historic role model." Since the book is geared for children ages seven through twelve,  Celia and Matthew were part of my "review team."  As I read it, I also wondered if they would recognize the people to whom young Abraham is introduced. 

I gave the book to eight-year-old Celia to read.  I did not tell her my feelings, or even what the plot was.  I wanted her to form her own opinions.  She is a fairly fast reader, and had it completed in less than fifteen minutes.  We then had a short discussion.  I asked her several questions, and the following are her answers:
  • What did you think of the book? It was weird.  I know it has to be fiction, because Abraham Lincoln is already dead, and we learned in school that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.   So it was really weird for them to be talking to the boy.
  • Did you know who all the famous people were? Well...some of them.  But not really. I know about President Lincoln and Dr. King.  And I guess the one guy [Norman Rockwell] was maybe a famous painter, but I've never heard of him.  I guess they are people who helped change the world and make dreams come true?
Abraham meets Bill & Melinda Gates
Image source: Inspiring the American Dream
  • Well, Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, and Bill Gates created Microsoft -- as in "Microsoft Windows."  Wow.  Really?  I didn't know that.  They must be smart, but I don't understand how they were important.  They're not historical.
  • Did you understand the message of the book? I think so.  I guess it is saying "Don't give up on a dream and don't give up hope."  The part about people losing their jobs was realistic, but the rest isn't realistic and is really, really fake.  I mean, come on....Abraham Lincoln isn't going to come out of your cellphone.
  • Do you think it's as easy to be successful as the book shows?  No, it's not.  Well, not usually.  I think it would make more sense to keep asking people if they had any money chores he could do for them, or to even help his parents find a job.  Because I know you like my drawings, but you're not going to pay me tons of money for them.  
(Note: in our house, everyone pitches in to keep the household running.  There is no allowance or "pay" for these basic things, but there are sometimes some extra one-time-only "money chores" that they can do to earn a little pocket money.)
I was curious to find out what Matthew (age 11) would think of the story, and wondered if there would be a big difference in thinking between a third grader and a sixth grader.  His impressions paralleled his sister's.  While he was more willing to suspend disbelief for the story (he even pointed out that it was "like that Scrooge story we read at know, the one where the ghosts show him around?") and did understand the point of having to work with the talents you have, he didn't understand why those particular adults were part of the story, either.  When I explained to him who they were, he understood a little better.   One thing he said stood out to me; while he knew that Abraham Lincoln coming alive was fake, he thought that maybe kids would think that all they needed to do was tell somebody what they wanted and then that person would do it for them, like how "that one guy got the lady to buy the painting."  He mentioned how it didn't seem like Abraham  worked very hard and still got tons of money.  I have to agree with both of them -- it did not seem like young Abraham worked for what he got.  He met many examples of hard workers, but in the end, he just knew somebody who knew somebody who knew a third person, and he really did not have any hurdles to overcome.  I found that both had the same thoughts interesting, given that the author's note specifically says of why the book was written:

Ironically, the very success of earlier American generations achieving the ‘dream’ has now led to a new generation, with very little, if any, understanding or motivation to pursue it. Attitudes of want rather than need, expectations to have, rather than to have earned, have replaced thrift and hard work as cornerstones in modern day society, threatening the American dream’s very existence."

To my tweens,  the names "Zuckerberg" and "Gates" do not really mean much, and  "social media" is just a phrase heard in the news.  They are familiar with Facebook, but to them, that is just the place where Mom can put a picture for Grammy to see.  (In addition, the book does not name Facebook in the story, they just refer to it as "a social media site created by Mark Zuckerberg.") While they are aware there are many charitable organizations that we personally contribute to, they had no idea that the Gateses have earned and given away so much wealth.   Celia had a hard time separating fact from fiction once she did learn who the people were/are.  She knew that Lincoln and King and Earhart were historic figures, long deceased.  It was a little overwhelming when she saw Bill Gates interviewed on the news, and then started wondering if maybe part of the story was real, and it wasn't just somebody "dressed up like President Lincoln but who really did show Abraham how to get money..."  I think they missed the point of the historic angle because the current innovators were unknown to them.

I expected this book to delve more into hard work, not just good luck.  I expected the historical figures to be recognizable ones, or if they were less prominent people, a better explanation within the story of why they were important Americans and keystones of the American Dream.  The excerpt that the authors have chosen for the site reads:

“Along the way, Abraham, you will meet several great American men and women. They will help you to uncover your hidden talent. They will share with you the many virtues you need in order to achieve your dream.  However, you must understand that you…and only you…are capable of making that dream come true.”

I only wish that the book had held to that promise that only Abraham could make his dream come true, just like guide Abraham Lincoln rose from a one-room cabin to the White House through his own work and dedication.  Unfortunately, the feeling that it was simply group of random "people who seemed to know other people who ultimately got him the money he needed"  just overshadowed the message for us.

Everyone interprets a story through his own eyes; click and see what others thought of this book.


Schoolhouse Review Crew disclaimer


  1. I think this is the best review of this book I have read so far! Great job!

    I finally finished mine last night, so am getting around to see what everyone else thought. :)


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