August 15, 2017

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Leader of the Pack: The lives of our former presidents make for a compelling and fun read | Nonfiction Booktalker

Which president was the first to travel in an airplane? (Theodore Roosevelt) Which president weighed only 100 pounds? (James Madison) And the killer question: Which president was the first one born in the United States? No, it wasn’t George Washington. The fourth and fifth graders in my booktalk audience got excited when I asked them these and other questions about our various commanders-in-chief.

Kathleen Krull has updated her Lives of the Presidents: Fame, Shame (and What the Neighbors Thought) (Harcourt, 2011) and, as always, her brief biographies, along with Kathryn Hewitt’s big-head illustrations, are hilariously delightful. So what’s the answer to the last question? Martin Van Buren. All of his predecessors were born in a British colony. Watch your kids absorb that thought-provoking tidbit! History, geography, and the shifting of empires crammed into one single riddle.

Carla McCullough’s The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon (Carolrhoda, 2011) focuses on this rock star president, and the one your booktalk audience has seen the most. Thanks to the Gilbert Stuart portrait used on our dollar bill, young people imagine they have a good grip on Washington’s appearance, but they won’t be so sure once they see his pictures here. In this gloriously illustrated look at the Mount Vernon resident, McCullough shows three full-length portraits of the icon at ages 57, 45, and 19. The father of our country was a teenager once!

How do you re-create the look of a man who lived before the invention of photography? Historians and artists pored over clues, including Washington’s contemporary portraits, the size and shape of his false teeth—which strongly resemble instruments of torture—and his real teeth.

George wasn’t always an old guy with bad teeth. In fact, a single Washingtonian tooth still exists. His dentist pulled the last one out and kept it in a small gold case with a glass top.

A few pieces of his wardrobe also exist, which helped in the reconstruction. People of the past stood, sat, and moved differently than we do today. In our era of casual, comfortable clothing, kids will be surprised to learn how often historical fashions forced the human body to hold itself in unusual or artificial ways.

Author Martin W. Sandler asserts that the first president to understand the importance of photography, and to use it brilliantly, was John F. Kennedy. Sandler’s Kennedy Through the Lens (Walker, 2011) zooms in on the youngest president ever elected, a charismatic and handsome man with a photogenic wife and beautiful children. JFK and television were made for each other. Most analysts believe that he won the 1960 election because he looked so much better on camera than his opponent during the Kennedy-Nixon debates. This was an era when images began flooding the culture. People got their news from Life magazine and its spectacular photos. Color reproduction was improving. Even youngsters were buying and using cameras. This was also the first election in which almost every family had a television set. Kennedy gave lots of televised press conferences; they still charm viewers today. When wife Jacqueline led a televised tour of the newly redecorated White House, it became the most watched TV program of all time. Even his assassination was photographed. And the assassin’s assassination! Sandler’s book includes scores of photos, full-page and double-page spreads, color, black-and-white, and tinted. Like his subject, Sandler understands the importance of images and how they convey both information and inspiration to young readers.

Your booktalk audience will hear more and more about presidents and would-be presidents as the 2012 campaigns rev up their engines. These books are terrific introductions to one of the most amazing jobs in the world, providing context, humor, and some really cool questions to ask at the dinner table.

About Kathleen Baxter

Kathleen Baxter is the former head of children’s services at the Anoka County Library in suburban Minneapolis and a speaker at school and library conferences all over the USA. She never goes anywhere without a book.

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