By Joy Fleishhacker
Election Day is just around the corner, providing bountiful opportunities for exploration and discussion in the classroom. Add a little pizzazz to your investigations of past and present office holders and the election process with books that blend a bit of fun with the facts. Ranging from poetry to graphic novels to biography, the titles featured here utilize eye-catching formats and winsome artwork to bring their topics to life and entertain while they educate.
Meet the President
Combining devilishly clever poems with delightfully cheeky artwork, The President’s Stuck in the Bathtub (Clarion, 2012; Gr 3-6) celebrates William Taft’s discomfiting (and true) calamity along with a miscellany of other amusing anecdotes and oddball facts about our nation’s leaders. Youngsters will chuckle aloud as they learn “The Naked Truth” about John Quincy Adams, well-known for his habit of skinny-dipping in the Potomac, who perched nude upon a riverside boulder awaiting the arrival of a new outfit when his clothes went missing: “John Quincy didn’t care./Nakedness suited him fine./Whether rockbound/or swimming against the tide,/this presidend/had nothing to hide.”
Other selections recount John Adams’s belief that the incumbent should be referred to as “His Majesty” (his opponents later dubbed him “‘His Rotundity,’ for Adams was plump,/amply padded from stomach to rump”); Harry S. Truman’s claim that “…he could sense/the ghostly presence of dead presidents;” the time Congressman John Kennedy was mistaken for an elevator boy by a group of tourists (“…those folks had one thing right:/He/was/going/ UP”); and Jimmy Carter’s faceoff with a pond-swimming “killer bunny” during a fishing trip.
Susan Katz’s offerings sparkle with tongue-tingling rhythms and witty wordplay. Various poetic forms—rhyming couplets, free verse, concrete, and more—are utilized to great effect; for example, an offering about Abraham Lincoln’s penchant for storing papers in “a hat as tall and skinny/as he was” is presented in the shape of a stovepipe topper. Robert Neubecker’s bright-hued illustrations expand upon the verses, spinning together familiar presidential details (and visages) with humorously exaggerated touches. Each selection includes a brief note providing background and additional facts. Share these poems aloud to introduce these individuals and encourage further research. Discuss how the author uses poetry to convey information (and make these lofty personages seem more human), and compare and contrast this approach with more traditional biography. Focus on the book’s artwork to introduce the use of caricature in illustration, identify personality traits and historical highpoints, and make comparisons to political cartoons.
Visually inviting and vivaciously written, Laurie Calkhoven’s I Grew Up to Be President (Scholastic, 2011; Gr 3-5) introduces each commander-in-chief with an accessible two-page profile. These brief bios cover administration highlights as well as interesting childhood chestnuts and personal tidbits that will help youngsters look beyond the trappings of history and see these leaders as real people. For example, Andrew Johnson “never attended a day of school” and taught himself to read, James Buchanan “was almost kicked out of college twice for misbehaving,” William Taft was a solid second baseman and power hitter during his boyhood baseball career, and Calvin Coolidge could handle an ox-drawn plow and make maple syrup. The articles end with additional facts and White House firsts set off by colorfully printed subheadings. Each entry pairs a formal painting of the featured president with a comical caricature of the man as a child (illustrator Rebecca Zomchek has depicted each youngster wearing clothing appropriate to his time period and holding an object that symbolizes his tenure in office, a built-in opportunity for discussion). This useful volume can be shared aloud in the classroom, or recommended to independent readers as a terrific browser or research-starter.
Life in the White House
From George Washington’s high-bred French hounds to Barack Obama’s “Portie water pooch,” Julia Moberg uses funny poems to showcase Presidential Pets: The Weird, Wacky, Little, Big, Scary, Strange Animals That Have Lived in the White House (Charlesbridge, 2012; Gr 3-5), and shed a bit of light on their owners. Throughout history, this august menagerie has included numerous dogs and cats, as well as goats, baby tigers, alligators, raccoons, talking (or singing or swearing) parrots, and more. Each handsomely designed spread provides a rhyming verse describing a president and pet-related incident, a “Tell Me More!” section that offers background about the highlighted happenings along with other interesting minutiae, “Presidential Stats” (basic facts about each man), and a list of major “Accomplishments & Events” during his administration. Zany full-page cartoons saturated in neon-bright colors highlight the humor as a cast of googly eyed characters—critters and humans alike—engage in riotous activities. Kid-grabbing and filled with fun, the profiles also provide real content and inspiration for further investigation. For example, a poem about Thomas Jefferson and the grizzly bear cubs brought back by explorer Zebulon Pike (the president “…built them a cage/On the White House front lawn,/And sometimes he’d walk them/On leashes at dawn”) makes a perfect segue into studies of early 19th-century westward exploration, including Pike’s journey and the Lewis and Clark expedition.
What would it be like to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Joe Rhatigan answers this question with an intriguing look at White House Kids: The Perks, Pleasures, Problems, and Pratfalls of the Presidents’ Children (Charlesbridge, 2012; Gr 4-6). Spanning the years from 1800 (when John Adams and his family moved into the barely completed mansion) to the present day, the author discusses the experiences of particular presidential offspring. Memorable moments include Baby Ruth, infant daughter of Grover Cleveland, being pulled from her nurse’s arms by a tourist and passed around for cheek-pinching (at the time, the grounds were open to the public); 11-year-old Irvin Garfield riding a high-wheeled bicycle down the grand staircase (an event depicted by a colorful illustration); and Teddy Roosevelt’s son Quentin and his rough-and-tumble “White House Gang” sticking spitballs on a portrait of Andrew Jackson during a sleepover. The author also chronicles the highs and the lows of leading one’s life in the public eye, from the limelight-loving, trend-setting Alice Roosevelt; to Luci Johnson, who used the opportunity to increase awareness about important issues; to the negative publicity heaped upon Amy Carter and Chelsea Clinton. The attractively laid out scrapbook-style spreads include numerous historical photos, pull-out quotes, fact boxes, and full-color artwork. Primary accounts are woven into the text, allowing these members of the first family to express their experiences in their own words. Utilizing an invitingly informal tone, Rhatigan continually asks readers to put themselves in the shoes of these youngsters, encouraging empathy while providing insight into American history and culture. Initiate a classroom discussion about the benefits and burdens of being a White House kid, and have your students write an opinion piece.
On the Campaign Trail
Ben Clanton’s tongue-in-cheek picture book features two contentious candidates, a donkey and an elephant, each determined to get readers to Vote for Me! (Kids Can Press, 2012; K-Gr 5). Their dialogue-balloon comments, printed in a full-volume large-size font, comically contain plenty of bravado and zero real content, as the smooth-talking contenders deploy an arsenal of underhanded campaign tactics, including complimenting the constituency (“YOU with the great hair and that dazzling smile”), out-and-out bribes (“if you PICK ME, I’ll give you PEANUTS!”), and badmouthing one’s opponent (“elephants stink”). Not surprisingly, the whole thing quickly degenerates into name-calling (“Dim-witted dolt,” “BELCHING BEAST OF BURDEN,” “OAF,” etc.) and mudslinging (literally). The adversaries eventually come to their senses, make nice, and shake hands in friendship. Despite these last-ditch efforts, election results soon reveal that an independent mouse candidate has crept in to win the vote and become “the Big Cheese.” Depicting characters with expressive features set against solid-colored backgrounds, the droll cartoon artwork is great for group sharing. As the campaign season heats up, use this funny read-aloud to start up a discussion about the practices, behaviors, and content exhibited in the pervasive TV ads and news coverage leading up to November.
Election fever must be catching, since the stars of two kid-favorite illustrated novel series have both decided to make a run for office, and their resulting exploits are both snicker-inducing and elucidative. The time has come for the feline incumbent to step down as leader of the Neighborhood Cat Club, and Nick Bruel has the “purrrfect” candidate: Bad Kitty for President (Roaring Brook, 2012; Gr 2-5). Lively text and wry cartoon artwork provide a humor-infused look at the election process including primaries (here decided by a baby-kissing contest), campaign efforts (endorsement-seeking and doorbell-ringing), use of the media (Kitty pretends to know nothing about a TV ad claiming that her feline opponent is actually an incognito dog), a public debate (Kitty snarls, howls, and screeches, and says nothing much), and the big day itself. Spreads featuring “Uncle Murray’s Fun Facts” and an appended glossary (sardonically presided over by the sour-puss, Edna Prunelove) help to explain election terms and practices. From caucuses to delegates to 527 groups, Bruel conveys a wealth of information while keeping the tone airy with Kitty’s typically irreverent antics.
A hair-bowed and bent-whiskered rodent takes on a similar challenge in Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm’s Babymouse for President (Random House, 2012; Gr 2-5). Vying for leadership of the student council, this plucky protagonist finds herself running against opponents that include catty mean-girl Felicia Furrypaws, the “Super Cute” doe-eyed Santiago Seal, and even her own locker (book trailers of video campaign ads are available for viewing at the Random House Web site). Though her campaign occasionally veers off course—with humorous flights of self-aggrandizing fancy, power trips, false claims, and empty promises—Babymouse eventually realizes that “being president isn’t about being in charge,” but more about “being the voice of the people.” Mixing lithe-lined cartoon artwork with lighthearted dialogue and narrative, this graphic novel offers up a candidate who is ridiculously over the top yet childlike and familiar, silly yet endearingly sincere. Have your students sort through Babymouse’s shortcomings and strong points and contemplate the traits that they would value most in a classroom—or country—leader.
When his small Ohio town is visited by the bus tour of third-party candidate Bettina Brandon, 12-year-old Aidan inadvertently saves her from being beaned by a falling sign, earning him instant fame on YouTube and an invitation to join the office-seeker on the campaign trail. Plagued by small mishaps, scrutinized by the scandal-seeking media, and continually misdirected by Governor Brandon’s 12-year-old daughter Emma (who does NOT want to live in the White House), poor Aidan thinks he has a pretty good idea of How Not to Run for President (Egmont USA, 2011; Gr 3-6). However, when the boy’s family is lambasted by the press, Emma steps up to help save the day…and her mother’s campaign. The fast-paced first-person narrative is filled with humor and honesty, as the unassuming Aidan grapples with his new role as hero (there’s even a movement on Facebook floating his name for VP), the vagaries of life in the media spotlight, and Emma’s unpredictable behavior. Though events are exaggerated for full comic effect, Catherine Clark’s novel touches upon timely and pertinent topics, such as hot-button political issues and current events, the use (and misuse) of the media on the campaign trail, challenges faced by women in politics, and the importance of personal integrity. Share this as a classroom read-aloud and make comparisons with the real-world political arena.
The activities suggested above reference the following Common Core State Standards:
RI. 3.7 Use information gained from illustrations…and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text.
RI. 5.5 Compare and contrast the overall structure…of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.
RI.4.2 Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details. Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.
W. 3.1 Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting appoint of view with reasons.
W. 2.7 Participate in shared research and writing projects.
SL. 3.2 Determine the main ideas and supporting details of a text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
For some recent titles on the roles of various presidents, read Jennifer M. Brown’s “Hail to the Chief: Presidential Tales.”
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