hail to the chief!…a list of five positively presidential portraits (actually…six!)

Happy President’s Day!

In past years I’ve written several presidential lists-of-five with Washington and Lincoln titles. You can find them in the Subject Index under President’s Day.

This year I’m straying from the two birthday boys, and looking at four other presidents in these five, truly outstanding books. 

No but wait!  I just got my hands on Maira Kalman’s new Thomas Jefferson title. So, I’m adding that gem as well! It’s a list of SIX today.

the revolutionary john adams cover imageThe Revolutionary John Adams, written and illustrated by Cheryl Harness
published in 2003 by National Geographic

As Cheryl Harness says in her introductory note, John Adams has been “eternally bookended and overshadowed” by the fellows that came before and after him in the White House — George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Yet Adams was an indispensable player in the founding of our country, the designing of our governing systems, and the establishment of the the revolutionary john adams illustration harness 001navy. He was a hard-working, brave, passionate man, whose sweet friendship with his wife Abigail we also admire.

As always, Cheryl Harness has written an engaging, insightful, rich biography, full of the kinds of details that make history come alive. Beginning with John’s birth in 1735 to a shoemaker and his wife, and ending with his death on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence — what an amazing slice of history to be alive in and so essentially a part of. Harness spotlights Adams, yet includes a great deal of the historical setting and events of the American Revolution.

True to form, Harness’ detailed paintings present a wagonload more information, so look carefully and take your time working through her beautiful, historically-accurate pictures, maps, timeline, and all the intriguing Adams’ quotes. Excellent biography for ages 9 or 10 and up.

thomas jefferson builds a library cover imageThomas Jefferson Builds a Library, by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by John O’Brien
published in 2013 by Calkins Creek

“I cannot live without books,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. That makes him a kindred spirit for many of us, doesn’t it?

Jefferson truly did seem to live on books from the time he was a little boy. He read and studied just about constantly. But that’s not all. Jefferson also collected books. At the time, this was an exceptionally expensive little hobby, and by Jefferson’s calculations, he spent a small fortune over the course of his life on his precious books.

It’s what he did with his vast collection that’s the really amazing part. His book-obsession benefits us today. Do you know how?

thomas jefferson builds a library barb rosenstock and john o'brien

This is a fascinating account, brilliantly told, which folks ages 6 through adult will very much enjoy. John O’Brien’s pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations are eye-catching, clever, engaging, and add a dash of fun. I really love his use of line and his colonial color palette.  Highly recommended! It just received a well-deserved recommendation in the 2014 Orbus Pictus nonfiction awards.

worst of friends cover imageWorst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the True Story of an American Feud, by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain, illustrations by Larry Day
published in 2011 by Dutton Children’s Books

Now that we’ve met these two, it’s time to read an unusual account of their friendship, interrupted by bitterness, and their eventual deep reconciliation. I have to say that I read this book to my husband to while away the hours of a road trip recently, and…it made him get a bit misty-eyed. He was deeply touched by the restoration these men achieved after so much acrid disagreement. That just tells you a worst of friends suzanne tripp and  larry daylittle bit about my husband; he values reconciliation tremendously.


the jacket flap calls it a “humorous” story and it’s true that Jurmain and Day strike a light tone. That’s good, because a book that gloomed and grumped along would be too heavy for young readers and cast too great a shadow on these decent fellows. Jurmain uses a breezy tone to bring us from their best-of-friends stage, through the Revolution, until unfortunately at the time Jefferson took the oath of office,  they were not on speaking terms. 12 years went by until they softened their hearts and enjoyed a sunny friendship once again.

It’s a great story on many levels, and a really excellent choice for ages 7 or 8 and up.

thomas jefferson life liberty and the pursuit of everything cover imageThomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything, written and illustrated by Maira Kalman
published 2014 by Nancy Paulsen Books

Oh, I could devote a whole post to this, but I’ll restrain myself!

Here is Jefferson as only Maira can portray him. A red-head with about 20 freckles, with a specially-designed bed so he could be up and at ’em at the crack of dawn, who loved growing vegetables, and ate “so many kinds of pudding” and strolled through his gardens with the Marquis de Lafayette plucking figs. Maira has a knack of dishing up the quirky, human side in her biographies.thomas jefferson life liberty and the pursuit of everything illustration maira kalman

She’s also eloquent on Jefferson’s passion to know about…everything! and his noble contributions to our nation. And, she matter-of-factly addresses the slavery issue as though she is holding our faces between her hands, gazing steadily into our eyes, and quietly delivering some painful news. Without killing the whole man. 

All this, and page after page of her brilliant artwork. Many try to mimic, but no one does Maira like Maira. The whole book bursts with color and life. Especially that exorbitant spring green that carpets the hillsides of Monticello. Brand new in 2014 and just so juicy and good!

to dare mighty things cover imageTo Dare Mighty Things: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt, by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by C.F. Payne
published in 2013 by Disney Hyperion Books

Moving rapidly along, we come to that giant among men, the boisterous, the energetic,  the one and only, Teddy!

And would you look at that book cover! That really says it all! Not even a title on it to detract from the out-sized portrait of this enthusiastic, charge-ever-onward, bully-for-you, guy.

I thoroughly enjoyed this biography. Rappaport has done a phenomenal job of taking us through TR’s life from his puny, asthmatic childhood and insatiable curiosity, through his rise to influence, his gusto and fearlessness, his deep sorrows, his passion for conservation, his lively presidential family — with a light hand. So much personality and outlook and information is packed into lines that are effortless to read. 

Payne’s artwork fills up to dare might things illus 2 doreen rappaport and c f paynethe large, square pages of this book with dramatic flair. There is nothing small or refined here. Each magnificent scene feels expansive and bursting with life, pulling us up close to this incredible persona.

A timeline and a great list of resources to learn more are included, as are many choice quotes. This is another very highly recommended biography for elementary-age and up, and where was this when the awards were handed out?! 

make your mark franklin roosevelt cover imageMake Your Mark, Franklin Roosevelt, by Judith St. George, illustrated by Britt Spencer
published in 2007 by Philomel Books

This breezy biography of FDR is plum full of stories that paint a picture of his life from birth to age 18. The book ends with just one, looking-ahead sentence about FDR’s eventual job as president. A few details of his presidential achievements are given in a short afterword.

So, it’s a very accessible biography, much more personal and less historically-focused than the others today. 

Roosevelt, of course, was born into a very wealthy, privileged family. His mother cossetted and pampered him in a rather terrifying manner, andmake your mark franklin roosevelt illustration britt spencer 001 was appalled at the notion that he would enter the embarrassing, low life of politics!

His father, Popsy, led FDR in recreational pursuits to make any child drool, and governesses attempted to teach the fairly-imperious boy his lessons. Life at Groton boarding school, and his fifth cousin, Teddy Roosevelt, were part of what awakened him to a bigger world view.

Judith St. George knows how to spin a story, and these are all engaging anecdotes. Kids won’t learn much about FDR’s important role as president, but will be intrigued by the backstory to our longest-serving, WWII leader. Britt Spencer’s mixed media illustrations are bright, vivid, playful, with a touch of David Small about them, easily drawing  listeners in to this text — a little lengthier than some and divided into six very-short chapters. Ages 7 and up.