March 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Secret Lives of Presidents: A behind-the-scenes look at the residents of the White House

Picture book cover: Presidents' mothersEvery U.S. president had a mother. Most of them had children and pets. Combine these obvious, but often-unconsidered facts with a touch of humor and they spell can’t-miss booktalks.

Start with Beverly Gherman’s First Mothers (Clarion, 2012), a catalog of powerful women who had powerful influence. Abigail Smith Adams, the wife of John and the mother of John Quincy, urged her husband in a letter to “Remember the Ladies… Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.” She was always willing to tell both of them what to do. Even after her son Lyndon became president, Rebekah Baines Johnson edited his speeches and reminded him to stand up straight. George H. W. Bush’s mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, was a great athlete. She disliked braggers, and she always told her children to remember how lucky they were.

Other First Mothers had traits they passed on to their famous sons. Ida Stover Eisenhower had brilliant organizing talents, which her son Dwight, the future general and commander-in-chief, inherited. Susanna Boylston Adams had a terrible temper—a flaw her son John shared. Abe Lincoln had two strong mothers: Nancy, his biological mother, who loved to wrestle and insisted he go to school, and Sarah Bush Johnston, his stepmother, who had a house full of books and a great sense of humor. The opinionated Sara Delano Roosevelt scolded her son, Franklin, for not letting her meet Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, who was fighting the Nazis. She wanted to tell Churchill how to run the war. Like mother, like son.

Picture book cover with Presidents' kidsJoe Rhatigan’s White House Kids: The Perks, Pleasures, Problems, and Pratfalls of the President’s Children(2012) points out the pros and cons of being an offspring in the most famous house in America. The downsides include a lack of privacy, extremely busy parents, and the possibility of doing something embarrassing that could end up in the media. The upsides? You get to travel in Air Force One with your dad. Your new home has a movie theater, a basketball court, a bowling alley, a swimming pool, and a tennis court.

Some First Kids had personalities as remarkable as their fathers’. Abraham Lincoln’s boy Tad set up a table and sold refreshments to visitors by the White House entrance. Gerald Ford’s daughter, Susan, held her high school prom in the East Room. Ulysses Grant asked his son Jesse why he often showed up late for breakfast. “When I was your age, I had to get up, feed four or five horses, cut wood for the family, take breakfast, and be off to school by eight o’clock,” the president said. Jesse smiled at his father and replied, “Oh, yes, but you did not have such a papa as I have.” And then there was Alice, Teddy Roosevelt’s beautiful daughter. She attended formal dinners with her pet snake, Emily Spinach, wrapped around her arm.

Illustrated picture book cover- Presidential petsEmily Spinach wasn’t the only unusual pet that lived on Pennsylvania Avenue, according to Julie Moberg’s Presidential Pets: The Weird, Wacky, Little, Big, Scary, Strange Animals That Have Lived in the White House (2012, both Charlesbridge/Imagine!). Lewis and Clark sent two grizzly bear cubs to Thomas Jefferson, who sometimes walked them on leashes on the lawn. John Quincy Adams kept an alligator in the East Room bathtub for two months.

Andrew Jackson owned a parrot that swore at his guests. The people of Bangkok gave Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes the first Siamese cat in America. William Taft kept a cow because he liked to drink lots of fresh milk, and Calvin Coolidge had a pet raccoon. Imagine the conversations this title will spark among your booktalk audience.

People have always been fascinated by how the heavily guarded White House residents really lived. Here’s a chance to do some snooping. And in a busy election year, these three books, perfect for fourth through eighth graders, will add a welcome human touch to your discussions.

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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.