a list of…five cheers for Washington on his birthday

George Did It, by Suzanne Jurmain, illustrations by Larry Day

He was a wealthy plantation owner, who loved nothing better than to manage his estate; a surveyor, statesman, war hero.  But one thing George Washington didn’t want to be was the president of the new United States.  In fact, just the thought of it made him nervous!

However, with everyone insisting upon it, there was only one thing to be done, and George did it.  In keeping with the way he shouldered all kinds of responsibilities which would have overwhelmed someone less stalwart, George left his beloved Mount Vernon, and traveled eight days to New York, stopping at scads of parties and celebrations in his honor on the way  — which weren’t really his cup of tea.  Parades and laurel wreaths, brass bands and welcoming committees of orangutans (!), all were politely received by George.  When a speech was required at his inauguration, he gamely tackled it — though it gave him butterflies in his stomach; when his coach couldn’t maneuver  through the crowded streets, he merely climbed out and walked home.

No matter what task was assigned to him, no matter how disinclined he was to fulfill it, when it came to serving the people of this brand new country, dependable George Washington did it.

Of all the stories children are likely to know about George Washington, his reluctant entrance into the presidency is probably not on the list.   Suzanne Jurmain fills that gap with this clever, funny, fascinating look at the man who dragged his feet all the way to becoming the Father of His Country.  It’s a delightful portrait of an immensely respectable public figure whose willingness to do his duty, and sense of  integrity, are so admirable.  Larry Day’s loose watercolor and pencil illustrations are colorful, clever, lively, matching the upbeat tone of the text perfectly.  Excellent book for first graders and up.

Washington at Valley Forge, by Russell Freedman

One mark of a true leader is his ability to effectively bring people through a crisis.  Kipling says, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…you’ll be a Man, my son.”  Washington faced just  this challenge as the Continental Army headed into the winter of 1777-78.  Having settled on the land at Valley Forge, with its barren ground and freezing weather, armed with a dismal lack of supplies, clothing, and food, Washington faced a crisis of morale that threatened to completely dissolve the fledgling army.

How Washington denied himself officer’s privileges to endure the hardships along with his men, kept up their spirits, deceived the British as to the strength of his army, withstood challenges to his leadership from outsiders, and finally convinced an oblivious Congress that the army required their help to survive — this is the fascinating account of Freedman’s excellent book.

From the music that encouraged men’s spirits to Washington’s prickly encounters with his doubters, and including the roles of several key assistants, Lafayette, von Steuben, Martha Washington, Molly Pitcher, the Native Americans and Black Americans on the Rebel side — Freedman skillfully relays to us a rich explanation of this pivotal season of the Revolution.  You will come away with a new appreciation for the foot soldiers who endured the punishing winter at Valley Forge to emerge as a formidable army, and for the steadfast determination of George Washington, who led this ragtag group from misery and defeat to victory.

I love Russell Freedman’s work.  His ability to clearly unfold complex historical events, highlighting intriguing details that enliven personalities, is extraordinary.  This book, 100 pages long and featuring reprinted artwork, suits upper-elementary students and up; a bit younger if you read it to them bit by bit.

Dolley Madison Saves George Washington, written and illustrated by Don Brown

Dolley Madison was a first lady known for being charming, beautiful, fashionable, the hostess-with-the mostess, — and thankfully, a spunky, brave woman!

Thankfully, because as the British were bearing down on Washington, D.C. in the late summer of 1814, bent on destroying what they could of the presidential mansion, Dolley did not flee with the soldiers.  No, she stood her ground long enough to rescue a national treasure — the life-size portrait of George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart, and hanging in the mansion.

Take it down!  Break the frame if you must!  Just save that picture!

Don Brown’s delightful story introduces the lovable Dolley Madison and narrates the hair-raising, breathtaking account of her brave actions during the War of 1812, resulting in the rescue of this fine work of art.  Using pen-and-ink and watercolor, he enlivens the pages with lighthearted, spirited, illustrations that will draw in readers as young as kindergarten.  Author’s Notes inform us about Gilbert Stuart and give a more complete biography of Dolley herself.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book!

The Crossing: How George Washington Saved the American Revolution, by Jim Murphy

We all know the iconic picture — the gallant General Washington, standing ramrod straight in the crowded rowboat, gazing ahead towards the distant shore as his oarsmen propel the boat through a river clogged with chunks of ice.

Of course, it wasn’t quite that way.  Yet the spirit of the painting is in keeping with Washington’s determination and gutsy strategy as he and his men crossed the Delaware, Christmas of 1776.  The Continental Army had met with a string of defeats and retreats; morale was at a low ebb.  The new army was no match for the seasoned British regulars.  Washington needed to score a victory in order to keep the Revolution from fizzling out completely, and that’s precisely what he did.

Award-winning author Jim Murphy provides an insightful, dramatic account of the dire straits Washington found himself in at this early juncture of the American Revolution, the bold move he made in this surprise attack, and the integral consequences it had for the outcome of the war.  Focusing on just this one tactical move, Murphy gives us a keener understanding of the entire American effort, and the critical leadership Washington provided.

With many full-page reproductions of artwork, maps, a timeline, listings of Revolutionary War sites and Internet sources to learn about them, a nice bibliography and an afterword about the famous painting by Leutze — this is a book geared for those in upper-elementary school and older who are already somewhat acquainted with the American Revolution.

George Washington, Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War, by Thomas B. Allen

Spies are cool.  Spy stories are enticing.  Apparently, there was a whole lot of spying going on during the Revolutionary War, and George Washington was in the thick of it.

If your older kids are weary of Paul Revere’s ride and George Washington’s cherry tree, here’s a book that will undoubtedly tell them something new.  Filled with double agents, secret codes, invisible ink, even messages made out of laundry(!), this is the story of the myriad ways Washington and others received needed information on the movements, sizes, and plans of the British troops.

You will meet spies like Lydia Darragh, who hid tiny pieces of paper inside cloth-covered buttons, sewn onto her son’s coat, and inconspicuously traipsed through

Benjamin Tallmadge

enemy lines; Nathan Hale, who regretted he had but one life to lose for his country, acting as one of the Knowlton Rangers, slipping behind British lines to gather intelligence; and Robert Townsend, who masqueraded as a Tory, even writing anti-Patriot articles for New York City newspapers, all the while eavesdropping in coffee shops to acquire juicy pieces of gossip from British officers.

But wait, there’s more!  Messages hidden in the quills of feathers; messages held in tiny silver balls, and swallowed if necessary.  Double crosses.  Numerical codes.  George Washington was at the epicenter of the whole spy business, as he sagely worked the system to get the information he needed.

As a bonus, many coded messages are hidden throughout the book for you to solve using an authentic Revolutionary War system devised by Benjamin Tallmadge.  So fun!

Great book for solid readers, about age 12 and up, printed on rough-edged pages in type that resembles an olde-fashioned volume, and brought to you by National Geographic.

Here are Amazon links for these wonderful Washington stories  — and that’s no lie!

George Did It
Washington at Valley Forge
Dolley Madison Saves George Washington
The Crossing: How George Washington Saved The American Revolution
George Washington, Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War