first mothers, first ladies, first daughters…hail to them on Presidents Day!

I’ve covered a number of titles on U.S. presidents over the years. You can find them in the Subject Index if you wish. This year, I felt weary of New Angles on Abe and Words about Washington. I decided to go spelunking for books on some of the women within the inner circle of the presidency.

And I found some fascinating titles! First up, because I am a mother and think mothers are terrific…

first mothers cover imageFirst Mothers, by Beverly Gherman, illustrated by Julie Downing
published in 2012 by Clarion Books; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

This delightful catalogue of All the Presidents’ Mothers contains breezy introductions to everyone from Mary Ball Washington — mom to George — all the way to Stanley Ann Dunham — mom to Barack.

Not only can you find out random facts such as which mom loved to shoot a rifle, or which mom joined the Peace Corps, but as the centuries roll by you can watch their hairstyles, fashions, occupations, and homes reflect the changing times. I was completely drawn into the wide-ranging personalities, backgrounds, struggles, and circumstances of these women.

first mothers interior gherman and downing

Accompanied by lighthearted, engaging illustrations, including a few quips and cartoons to keep things upbeat, every page has a sunny, welcoming design. Check out this book for yourself, and  share it with kids age 6 and up. 

Dolley Madison cover imageDolley Madison, by Kathleen Krull, illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher
published in 2015 by Bloomsbury

Dolley Madison, with her exotic turbans, effervescent White House parties, charming manners, and strong opinions, is a perfect candidate for this well-written series of biographies on Women who Broke the Rules. 

Read her life story, from her Quaker upbringing and early widowhood, to the gala events she presided over in Washington, and her epic moment of saving Washington’s portrait from the marauding British! 

dolley madison illustration steve johnson and lou fancher

Krull’s writing is crystal clear, engaging, and perfectly-paced. Warm illustrations help us see Dolley’s world and her winning self. Fantastic read for ages 8 and up, or read it aloud with kids even a bit younger. 46 pages.

what to do about alice cover imageWhat to Do About Alice? by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
published in 2008 by Scholastic Press

Here the sub-title is “How Alice Roosevelt broke the rules, charmed the world, and drove her father Teddy crazy!” 

That gives us a great hint as to the tone of this zesty book about one rambunctious gal! For, as we know, Teddy Roosevelt was no push-over. He was a hearty fellow, as comfy on a charging horse as a babe in a cradle. But Alice! Alice he could not control.

what to do about alice illustration edwin fotheringham

Follow the whirlwind Alice from morning piggyback rides to dancing the turkey trot at diplomatic balls. The zippy text is marvelously matched by Fotheringham’s dynamite, jazzy, retro illustrations. An outstanding collaboration and loads of fun for ages 6 and up.

eleanor cover imageEleanor, written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney
published in 1996 by Viking

Eleanor Roosevelt wins the prize, I believe, for Most Books about a First Lady. Her life was an unexpected series of lows and highs, yet in the end she shines out as an outstanding person who overcame immense struggles. Perhaps that is why so many loved her.

This biography by the masterful Barbara Cooney examines only her childhood through about age 18. In Cooney’s snowfall-quiet, intrepid prose, we learn the deeply-sad truths about Eleanor’s early days, her mother’s ugly behavior towards her, the series of deaths which rendered her an orphan, and Eleanor’s compassion for the impoverished ones in her world.

eleanor illustration by barbara cooney

We also see the powerful impact of one teacher who changed the course of Eleanor’s life. It’s a gorgeous, moving story. When you’ve finished, and want to find out “what happens next,” I suggest you turn to Doreen Rappaport’s biography, Eleanor, Quiet No More. It’s a handsome picture book that briefly drops in on her childhood, then spends most of its time on her adult years and accomplishments. 

Eleanor, Quiet No More, by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Gary Kelley

Eleanor, Quiet No More, by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Gary Kelley

Both are excellent choices for ages 5 and up.

vinnie and abraham cover imageVinnie and Abraham, by Dawn FitzGerald, illustrated by Catherine Stock
published in 2007 by Charlesbridge

In the Things I Never Knew category, this book takes the cake today.

Vinnie Ream was a young woman who showed a knack for sculpture from her childhood days in the Wisconsin territory. When her family moved to Washington, D.C. during the Civil War, she carried her sketchbook with her everywhere, captivated by the features of all the faces hurrying past.

vinnie and abraham illustration catherine stock

One face intrigued her above all — that of Abraham Lincoln. The sorrow etched in it. The craggy features.

Vinnie Ream, amazingly, became an apprentice sculptor, which was not considered proper territory for a “mere girl.” Read this fascinating story of her rise to fame, and find out which impressive sculpture of hers you can still see in the U.S. Capitol rotunda.

Catherine Stock’s always-lovely watercolors are what drew me to this book originally. I love everything she does! Read this one with ages 4 and up.

miss lady bird's wildflowers cover imageMiss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America, by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein
published in 2005 by Harper Collins

Finally, this account of Lady Bird Johnson.

How did she get that nickname?

How did she come to deeply cherish the  Texas Bluebonnet?

Where did she roam in her wilderness ramblings as a child?

miss lady bird's wildflowers illustration joy fisher hein

What cause did she take up as First Lady and how has that brought beauty to us all?

Read about the wildflower legacy of this far-seeing woman and become inspired to bring beauty to a patch of the world near you. Brilliantly colorful illustrations are fitting for this blossom-filled story. Ages 4 and up.