March 24, 2017

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Lynn Cullen’s “Dear Mr. Washington” | Spotlight

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Books about our presidents are perennial favorites, and George Washington is one of the most frequently requested subjects. As we approach his birthday, celebrated this year on February 16, share some of the many books about him with your students. One sure way to generate enthusiasm for these titles is to read aloud a selection of Washington’s “110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” penned when the president-to-be was 14 years old. These George-isms (National Geographic, 2000) include such gems as “Cleanse not your teeth with the table cloth, napkin, fork or knife; but if others do it, let it be done with a pick tooth,” “Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another, though he were your enemy,” and “Do not puff the cheeks; loll not out the tongue, rub the hands, or beard, thrust out the lips, or bite them, or keep the lips too open or close.”

deatrA select few of these “rules” are highlighted in Lynn Cullen’s delightful new picture book Dear Mr. Washington (Dial, 2015; Gr 1-4), illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. The book features the president and the 18th-century American artist Gilbert Stuart, along with several of Stuart’s 12 children. Stuart painted three images of our first president, and reproductions of them abound—including the one on the U.S. dollar bill. But perhaps the his best-known portrait of Washington is the full-length oil painting of the man, dated 1796 and owned by the National Portrait Gallery. In that painting, Washington stands in front of red drapes and two Doric columns, next to a table covered with a red cloth and books and writing utensils—symbols of his public service. In the portrait, Washington is wearing a somewhat solemn expression, sometimes attributed to a painful set of false teeth.

Cullen’s interpretation of Washington’s countenance in the painting is a bit more fanciful. Stuart is known to have painted Washington’s image in Stuart’s home; the president didn’t enjoy posing, and his “grim expression” was ruining the portrait, until the artist discovered that the topic of horses could get him to smile. In her author’s note, Cullen states she liked “to imagine the Stuart children having a hand in” that smile.


Interior page from Lynn Cullen’s ‘Dear Mr. Washington’ (Dial) Carpenter

Dear Mr. Washington is written as a series of apologetic letters to the president after he sent the rambunctious children (“scallyways” in his words) a copy of his “Rules of Civility.” The letters are written by “Charlotte Stuart,” the oldest of the three incorrigible children featured in the book, who at one portrait sitting or another chew his hair ribbons, race the family cat up his shoulder, suck on his shoe (the baby), spill punch, cry, laugh at the misfortune of another, howl, and cry again (Baby John). In an attempt to get Baby John to laugh, Charlotte hoists him up for a horsy ride, finally eliciting a grin from the president.

Nancy Carpenter, illustrator of Kristine O’Connell George’s Emma Dilemma (Clarion, 2011), Jenny Offill’s 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore (Schwartz & Wade, 2006), and Eva Moore’s Lucky Ducklings (Orchard, 2013), among other titles, offers a depiction of  Stuart’s offspring that is as raucous as her subjects. Both full-page and spot art illustrations in mixed media (pen, acrylic paint, and digital media) deliver an abundance of humorous details, as they paint the picture of a man famous for both “his courtesy and excellent manners.”

Curriculum Connections

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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

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