I was combing through my stacks last night, looking for a different picture book, when I spied a lavender spine. There aren’t many picture books with a lavender, orange, red, and brown palette. And how unusual for a book about Detective Pinkerton, the immigrant who saved President Lincoln from assassination. In that moment, I remembered that I’d meant to feature this book a lonnnnng time ago.
In addition to its unusual palette, its long horizontal trim size makes it stand out on the bookshelf.
The opening pulls the reader in with two questions, a surprising answer, and immediate tension that makes us turn the page:
What does it take to be a great detective?
Do you need to be STRONG or RICH or POWERFUL?
Allan Pinkerton wasn’t any of those things. Born in 1819, he grew up in one of the worst slums in Scotland. But he had sharp eyes, a quick mind, and a hunger for justice. That passion for fairness led him to join a group promoting workers’ rights. For years, the British government considered him a nuisance, then a criminal. When soldiers came to arrest him on his wedding day, Pinkerton fled with his bride, hiding on a ship that took them to America.
Thank goodness he and his bride made that trip, or what comes after would NOT have been history.
Pinkerton starts a successful barrel-making business, but it’s his curiosity that sets him apart. He runs out of lumber for his business and goes on a scouting trip to find more. But what he finds instead is a counterfeit coin-making operation. When he blows the whistle on them, he gets asked to help find the source of counterfeit bank notes. With his quick wits and sharp eyes, he finds the crooks. What a sleuth!
Although the Chicago police hire him to be their first full-time detective, he strikes out on his own only a year later. He then develops and documents the methods he uses to identify and catch criminals so he can train others to work with him. By the 1850s, the Pinkerton Agency was the best in the country. They solved hundreds of murders and recovered millions in cold, hard cash, earning the agency slogan “We Never Sleep.”
But then the job of a lifetime came along, one that involved the victorious whistle stop train taking President-elect Abraham Lincoln from Springfield, Illinois to Washington DC. Suffice to say, Pinkerton steps in and foils an assassination plot instigated by a group of Southern secessionists. It’s a fascinating story, involving what could possibly be the first-ever wire-tapping, a decoy train, Lincoln disguised as an invalid, and Pinkerton scouts to ensure the railway tracks, bridges, and tunnels were safe for the passage of the train carrying Lincoln.
After a tense train ride, Lincoln was finally delivered to Washington DC. Pinkerton’s coded message?
In light of this key success, Lincoln created the Secret Service to spy on the Confederacy and catch Southern spies. Guess who became the first leader of the Secret Service?
A fascinating story of yet another immigrant who came to America, and just like his country he was “young, scrappy, and hungry.” He didn’t “throw away his shot.” (Hamilton ear worms haunt me.)
A fabulous addition to the nonfiction picture book biography world, there’s also meaty back matter, including a timeline, extensive author’s note, end notes sourcing key quotes (including the coded message shown above), bibliography, and an index! This would be a great jumping off point for kids who love all things spy, detective, or president-related. It’s also a fascinating read for adults who are just curious to know a bit more of about our history.
The engaging illustrations are appropriately steam punk and stylized to highlight Lincoln’s lankiness and others of shorter stature. I also love the nod to Van Gogh’s swirling Starry Night sky in one spread. The book’s trim size allows for lengthy horizontal spreads showing the paths of trains making their way across the countryside. And the final spread takes advantage of this length as it makes the reader turn the book vertically to show the Pinkerton eye logo as a spotlight with Pinkerton standing in the light’s arc in front of the Capital building. A striking final touch!
Fun ways to think like a detective: https://enjoy-teaching.com/fun-mystery-activities-kids/
Pair this book with Nate the Great or Encyclopedia Brown read alouds
Check out this websitefor more detective book suggestions for all levels of readers.
Title: The Eye That Never Sleeps: How Detective Pinkerton Saved President Lincoln
Author: Marissa Moss
Illustrator: Jeremy Holmes
Publisher: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2018
Ages: Grades 2-5
Themes: detectives, presidential history, justice
For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s blog.