a list of…five monumentally-great books for Presidents’ Day

My local newspaper, the Minneapolis StarTribune, ran a delightful article in honor of Presidents’ Day, in which they interviewed second-graders to hear their thoughts on the presidents.  When asked their favorite president, one boy said Abraham Lincoln because “he was the second president and number two is my lucky number…that’s when I started to walk!”  Another girl prefered George Washington since his wig “looks all white and furry.  It probably feels like silk.”  It’s a charming article! 

In honor of the birthdays of presidents Lincoln and Washington, here are some great biographies to inform and delight us:

Abraham Lincoln, by Amy L. Cohn and Suzy Schmidt, pictures by David A. Johnson

This is a tall, thin book about a tall, thin man who wears a tall, thin hat!

In a pleasant, colloquial style, Cohn and Schmidt tell us the story of Abraham Lincoln’s life from babyhood to his untimely death.  Was Lincoln always straight-backed, tall, and sober-minded? they ask at the outset, then trace his pathway through life to find out how he grew into that kind of man.

From a vigorous, hard-working childhood, to Abe’s eye-opening journey down the Mississippi and stint as a shopkeeper; a peek at his marriage and lawyering, and we’ve arrived at the presidency.  The weary task, the Emancipation Proclamation, finding U.S. Grant, and the sorrowful day when Lincoln died.  Brief pages, touching lightly on all these subjects with the friendly voice of a storyteller, yet with a sprinkling of nice details and a clear sense of admiration.  Our final glimpse is of the Lincoln Memorial — a giant statue of a giant-of-a-man.

Johnson’s subtly-hued ink-and-watercolor illustrations are artful, quiet portrayals of a long-legged, skinny boy, an optimistic, spindly young man, and a tall, thoughtful, care-worn president.  The pictures reflect the tone of the narrative very, very nicely.  Great presentation, easily absorbed by 1st/2nd grade and up.

George Washington, written and illustrated by Cheryl Harness

Cheryl Harness is a brilliant nonfiction writer/illustrator, with a trademark ability to cram a ton of information into her clever, annotated maps, diagrams, and illustrations which accompany the main storyline.  There is always so much to examine and notice and read in her extras, the books can be lingered over for a good long time.

A storyline dense with information tells Washington’s life story, from a dip into his youth, through the French and Indian War, his farming years at Mt. Vernon, the meetings of the Continental Congress, and a lengthy account of his work as general in the Revolutionary War.  Then comes an intriguing account of his work as the first president (for some reason this is often left out of his shorter biographies) and finally his years in retirement at his beloved Mt. Vernon.  The tone is fairly matter-of-fact; definitely not emotive, yet underlining Washington’s incredibly hard work as he laid aside personal preferences again and again in order to help his nation.

Meanwhile, in glorious, rich colors, Harness depicts the scenes of all this activity.  Layered atop these vibrant scenes, Harness places maps of Washington’s surveying treks, detailed layouts of Mount Vernon, weathered maps showing the major Revolutionary War events and decorated with cameos of important people, a picture of the Constitutional Convention with likenesses of each person present — and a guide to who’s who…As I said, discovering all that is tucked into these illustrations is a bit like a treasure hunt! I find it very helpful to have the locations of all these events clearly mapped out right in the context of the story.

We’ve enjoyed a number of Harness’ books.  They are best for slightly older readers — say 4th grade and up.  This one is characteristically fabulous!

So You Want to be President?, by Judith St. George, illustrated by David Small

If you want to be President, this book advises you to be named James.  After all, there’ve been six presidents named James.  As well as four Johns and four Williams.  Apparently we American voters are also wild about guys from log cabins.  We’ve elected 8 presidents who were born in log cabins.

However, some details aren’t as particular.  Size, for instance.  We’ve elected little James Madison — five foot four and just 100 pounds — and we’ve elected massive William Howard Taft — whose 300 pounds didn’t fit in the standard White House tub!  Jokers and shy folk; homely and handsome; thrifty and given-to-elegance.  They’ve all lived in the White House.

This book is a delightful, whimsical, trivia-lover’s dream that breezily looks at the similarities and differences of the men who have been president.  Published in 2000, it does not include George W. Bush nor Barack Obama’s presidencies.  It is fun to spot which trivia (and not so trivial) statistics would change with those two additions.

David Small won the Caldecott Medal for his genius illustrations.  Outstanding, recognizable, cariactures of all these guys fill the pages.  From the ridiculous, to the more somber tone struck at the end of the book; from Teddy’s antics, to Harry Truman and Richard Nixon tickling the ivories.  Humorous, clever, upbeat depictions are simply a blast to pore over.

A guide to who’s who in the illustrations, as well as a brief, descriptive list of each of the presidents, are included in the book.  Great for 2nd grade and up…up…up!

Big George: How a Shy Boy Became President Washington, by Anne Rockwell, illustrated by Matt Phelan

George Washington started out as a shy boy who would just as soon avoid conversation, but who had a bit of trouble holding his tongue when he lost his temper.  But George did not allow these things to get the best of him.  He worked hard to overcome these traits, as he worked hard to map the colonies, fight the French, manage his plantation, lead the army, survive Valley Forge, and defeat the British.  When his country asked him to become our first president, George worked hard to be as good a leader in peace as in war, even though he would much rather have settled into a quieter life at Mount Vernon.

This is a pleasant, brief account of George’s life told succinctly, yet colorfully.  About half the book covers Washington’s life up to the Revolutionary War, and half tells about his role in the war.  Soft, handsome illustrations sweep across the pages drawing us into the scenes.  An elegant minuet; a gorgeous Wyeth-esque Indian; the biting cold boatride across the Potomoc; all communicate as effectively as the words.

Really nice little biography for ages 6 and up.

Lincoln: A Photobiography, by Russell Freedman

Russell Freedman is a fantastic writer who has tackled a large number of historical subjects for middle-grade and up readers.  I always learn a great deal from his books and enjoy the clear, smooth style which graces all his writing.

This is his Newbery Medal winning work on Lincoln.  It is packed with factual information, to be sure, but its true beauty lies in the  richness of Freedman’s deeply personal portrait of this man.  Freedman very much honors Lincoln in his book, yet we also see Lincoln as very human; a weary man; a devoted father; a patient, caring  listener to countless heartsick people; a witty man; a self-deprecating man; yet a determined man, brimming with ambition and a willingness to work very hard. 

Freedman tells Lincoln’s life story, his hardscrabble growing-up years, his beginnings in law and politics, his marriage and family life, and his iron-clad anti-slavery convictions.  He traces Lincoln’s difficult years in the presidency, presiding over a nation torn apart, reeling from the death of his dear son, Willie, struggling to be re-elected.  He walks us step by step through Lincoln’s final day and the funeral, even listing for us what was found in Lincoln’s pockets after his assassination.  Incredibly, we come away from this book with both a deep admiration for the greatness of this man, and a tender awareness of what a real, human person he was.

The prolific photos in the book augment the story wonderfully.  I find the sequential photos of an aging Lincoln particularly fascinating.  Even though the biography runs over 130 pages, the readable font-size and abundant photos and illustrations make the text  less intimidating for readers, say, ages 10 and up.  Several pages of excerpts from Lincoln’s speeches and letters are included as well as an overview of the historical sites associated with Lincoln that are open to visitors.  Fabulous work by an author to look for.

Here are links to these titles on Amazon:
Abraham Lincoln
George Washington
So You Want to be President? Revised and Updated Edition
Big George: How a Shy Boy Became President Washington
Lincoln: A Photobiography (Houghton Mifflin social studies)