March 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Presidents’ Day | Books for Celebration and Study

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Thomas Jefferson Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of EverythingPresidents’ Day (February 17, 2014) is just around the corner. Combining well-researched content with reader-pleasing formats, the handsomely illustrated titles presented here put the spotlight on America’s chief executives. A selection of stellar works about Thomas Jefferson is featured, followed by a quick round-up of recent not-to-miss presidential titles. Filled with fascinating facts and up-close-and-personal insights, these books can be shared to celebrate and study the lives and accomplishments of our nation’s leaders.

Thomas Jefferson: Three Glimpses at the Third President
Each one of these strikingly illustrated titles takes a unique approach to introducing one of America’s most fascinating founding fathers. Students can utilize two or more of these topic-specific texts to extract important points and key details, compare and contrast material, and learn to integrate information from multiple sources about Jefferson into classroom explorations or individual research pieces. They can also identify and discuss similarities and differences in each work’s narrative and illustrative style, specific focus, and point of view to investigate the various methods that authors and illustrators employ to present information effectively.


Interior page from Thomas Jefferson (Penguin) Copyright © 2014 by Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman portrays Thomas Jefferson (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen, 2014; Gr 1-4) as a complex individual with a passion for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of everything.” Sprinkled with primary quotes, the invitingly informal narrative blends factual information with the author’s thoughtful asides, succinctly summing up Jefferson’s endless quest for knowledge, storied achievements and innovations, and political ideas and ideals, along with his personal tragedies (his beloved wife, Martha, died young and only two of their six children survived into adulthood).

Telling it straight, Kalman also states that this “monumental man had monumental flaws.” Though Jefferson called slavery an “abomination [that] must end,” he was the owner of approximately 150 enslaved individuals who “toiled and cooked and labored in the fields from dawn to dusk.” A lovely image of a smiling Sally Hemings (and mention that Jefferson had children with her after Martha’s death) is effectively paired with a stark reproduction of a slave ledger from his farm book (Kalman laments, “Our hearts are broken. One of the names is Sally”). Whether depicting barren slave quarters, Monticello’s grandeur, or Virginia’s rolling hills, the bright-hued artwork delineates historical detail and provides emotional immediacy. Accessible and perceptive, this portrait introduces an admirable yet imperfect man and provides numerous possibilities for discussion.

Thomas Jefferson Builds a LibraryA pleasure to read aloud, Barb Rosenstock’s Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library (Highlights/Calkins Creek, 2013; Gr 1-5) focuses on this bibliophile extraordinaire. From an account of a boy who polished off every tome in his father’s study by age six, to a presidency during which he “doubled the size of the country and more than tripled the number of books in its library,” to his determination to restart the destroyed-by-fire Library of Congress with his own private collection (over 6,500 volumes), this robust tale cleverly couches details of Jefferson’s life and career in terms of his fervor for reading, amassing, and learning from books. The interactive narrative bustles with descriptive language, hearty humor, and whirlwind facts. Numerous insets (designed like an open volume, of course) offer additional tidbits and Jeffersonian quotes.

John O’Brien’s frenetic illustrations create a strong sense of time and place, while also playing up the comedy (for instance, a college-aged Tom rides a horse with a book for a saddle while simultaneously perusing an open volume and playing violin). The story ends with an interior image of the Library of Congress, now over 35 million volumes strong. An entertaining and enlightening ode to the man who stated, “I cannot live without books.”

EThomas Jefferson A Day at Monticellolizabeth V. Chew invites young readers to travel back to the spring of 1813 and spend “a day at Monticello” with Thomas Jefferson (Abrams, Feb. 2014; Gr 2-6). The articulate text chronicles Jefferson’s daily endeavors, as he rises at dawn to record current weather conditions in his fan-style ivory pocket notebook (it’s erasable), tours the grounds of his 5,000-acre plantation with grandson Francis, visits the kitchen (complete with a temperature-controlling stew stove), spends a sociable evening with family and friends, and finally climbs into his alcove bed to read by candlelight.

Much background information is woven into the narrative, and boxed entries expand upon topics such as “The Lewis and Clark Expedition” or “Slavery.” The text makes clear that the bulk of the estate’s labor was performed by enslaved people (including young Israel Gillette, whom Francis discovers is unable to accompany him on a hunting trip because he must toil in the textile factory from sunup to sundown).

Mark Elliott’s lush historical paintings are paired with full-color photos of Monticello and highlighted historical artifacts (including Jefferson’s famed revolving book stand). Though dialogue has been fictionalized, this approach enhances the narrative’s readability, and actual quotations are cited at the end. Share this engaging volume aloud or suggest it as a research-project resource. As a related activity, have students visit the Monticello website for virtual tours of the house and grounds, downloadable guides and activities, and a treasure trove of Jeffersonian information and images.

Founding Father Frenemies: Jefferson and John Adams
Two entrancing titles delve into the dealings between a pair of very unique individuals—one tall, thin, and shy, the other short, stout, and outspoken—who despite their physical and philosophical differences remained staunch allies in the forging of a new nation. Another useful pairing for textual comparison, both books present historical events and a complex friendship with clarity and insight.

Those Rebels, John & Tom Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham utilize their typically lighthearted approach to introduce Those Rebels, John & Tom (Scholastic, 2012; Gr 1-5). The first few pages humorously hark back to babyhood to underscore their dissimilar personalities and lifestyles. When they met at the 1775 Continental Congress and found themselves united in their dislike for the tyrannical King George, John and Tom discerned that “working together, they might accomplish more than working alone…[to] compel their fellow delegates to action.”

The razor-sharp writing (with “his mighty pen,” Tom “lunged, parried, and skewered” King George’s policies) and imaginative wordplay is enhanced by equally witty scratchboard-style bold-colored artwork. Clearly cited primary quotes are smoothly integrated into the text. The action ends with the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, astutely revealing how a big-stage historical event could only come off through the efforts of very real men who learned to compromise and succeed by valuing one another’s strengths. (See the author’s notes on aligning this title with the Common Core State Standards.)

Worst of FriendsSuzanne Tripp’s Worst of Friends (Dutton, 2011; Gr 2-5) provides a broader treatment. Though “as different as pickles and ice cream,” the two patriots “had the same big, wonderful ideas” about creating America; however, they later discovered that they had very different visions about how this brand-new nation should be run.

At philosophical odds, John believed in a “strong and powerful president,” while Tom worried that an “extra-superstrong and bossy” leader might take away the people’s freedom and “even try to make himself a king!” The quarrel escalated, resulting in hurled insults and mud-slinging, dysfunction between the Republican and Federalist parties, and an 11-year silence before the two men finally made up. They exchanged letters until they passed away on the same day: July 4, 1826 (America’s 50th birthday). The vivacious text contains numerous quotes and tongue-in-cheek sparkle, and Larry Day’s vibrant illustrations glow with period details and wry humor. Students will learn many still-applicable lessons about American politics—and friendship—by comparing these two wonderful offerings.

Jefferson: Classroom Resources
Who Was Thomas JeffersonPart of a kid-popular series, Dennis Brindell Fradin’s Who Was Thomas Jefferson? (Grosset & Dunlap, 2003; Gr 2-5) provides a straightforward summation of the third president’s life and career. Easy-to-read chapters offer enough depth for report writers and history buffs, and John O’Brien’s black-and-white cartoons add lighthearted humor. Personal details (Jefferson’s grief at his wife’s death, money troubles, and his relationship with Sally Hemings) are treated objectively, as are his views on slavery. This book can provide further reading for young researchers or an additional text for students to use for comparison and contrast between works.

More advanced readers and educators seeking additional background or activates will appreciate Brandon Marie Miller’s Thomas Jefferson for Kids (Chicago Review Pr., 2011; Gr 4-7). This well-researched and clearly written volume covers Jefferson’s personal life, political career, and historical times in greater depth. Quotes from his letters and journals appear throughout, as do black-and-white reproductions of contemporary artworks and photos of historical sites. Ranging from dancing a reel, to making a simple microscope, or drawing a floor plan, the 21 activities reflect Jefferson’s interests and experiences.


To Dare Mighty ThingsExpand your Presidents’ Day celebrations and presidential book collections with a few must-have offerings. Providing a compelling and elucidating introduction to an American icon, Doreen Rappaport’s outstanding picture book effectively demonstrates Theodore Roosevelt’s lifelong resolve To Dare Mighty Things (Hyperion/Disney, 2013; Gr 2-5). Like the title, an excerpt from a Roosevelt speech, numerous primary quotes are seamlessly incorporated into the spirited text, revealing this bigger-than-life figure’s irrepressible personality, can-do attitude, and political passions. Whether depicting majestic landscapes or intimate at-home moments, C. F. Payne’s gorgeous paintings are as grand as their subject matter. Read an interview with the author in “Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Mighty Things.'”

Rutherford B. Who Was HeIn Rutherford B., Who Was He? (Hyperion/Disney, 2013; Gr 4 Up), Marilyn Singer vivifies our nation’s leaders, from George Washington to Barack Obama. Rhythmic and inventive, her brief poems present edifying looks at each chief executive with delightful wit and piercing perceptiveness.

Offerings touch upon Washington’s dedication (though yearning to “lead a quiet life…He agreed to father a newborn nation—/and never took a real vacation”), the “bitter partisanship” between Adams and Jefferson, John F. Kennedy’s brief yet shining administration (“His was not a time of calm./Yet he gave us hope. He gave us the Moon./He gave us a presidency that ended too soon”), and Richard Nixon’s tarnished legacy (“Would people remember/Watergate, nothing but Watergate?”). Some entries cleverly echo its subjects own words, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, who lead the country during tough times, “…year after year/when there was more than just fear/to fear.”

John Hendrix’s colorful mixed-media illustrations expand upon the text with caricature-style portraits, historical details, and the occasional commander-in-chief quote. Appended bios of the presidents provide background and context for the poems’ specifics. This book provides a rousing starting point for discussion and further investigations, and makes a neat segue into the topic of political cartoons and lampoons.

Updated to reflect the results of the 2012 election, the latest edition of David Rubel’s Scholastic Encyclopedia of the Presidents and Their Times (2013; Gr 4 Up) presents informative and well-written overviews. Year-by-year pages treat political history (laws, wars, treaties, etc.) and chronicle the important events, crises, and (sometimes) scandals of each man’s administration. Inset columns highlight contemporary life by describing developments in science, medicine, technology, and the arts as well as cultural trends. Colorful reproductions and photos enhance the neatly designed spreads, and a history of the White House is appended. The chronological presentation, bold subheadings, and an in-depth index aid students in seeking out information about specific subjects. A solid classroom resource, this fun-to-browse and fact-filled tome can be used in tandem with the above mentioned titles to make comparisons between texts, to investigate particular topics, and to aid further research.

Looking for more great books? Follow these links for related articles and book lists: Jennifer M. Brown’s “Hail to the Chief”; Joy Fleishhacker’s Vote for Me! Prelude to a Presidential Election; and an interview with Maira Kalman on her book, Looking at Lincoln.

The Common Core State Standards below are a sampling of those referenced in the above books and classroom activities:

RL. 1.1. Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
RL 3.7. Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story.
RL 5.6. Describe how a narrator’s or speaker’s point of view influences how events are described.
R.I. 1.9 Identify basic similarities and differences between two texts on the same topic (e.g., in illustrations, descriptions, or procedures).
RI 2.6. Identify the main purpose of a text, including what the author wants to answer, explain, or describe.
RI 2.7. Explain how specific images…contribute to and clarify a text.
RI 4.7. Interpret information presented visually…and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.
RI. 5.5 Compare and contrast the overall structure…of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.
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.

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.