Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Monday, December 30, 2013

In Their Hands

The men, women and children whose names find a place in history books are sometimes only names; words in black and white not given flesh, bones and personalities.  There are countless others who did make a difference but remain confined to the past, not even acknowledged in our volumes chronicling human endeavors.  Year after year authors and illustrators change these facts.

They take names, known and unknown, making them alive for readers in the here and now.  Their accounts, whether through fiction or nonfiction, are so skillful the people seem to walk into our presence.  Author Marilyn Singer and illustrator John Hendrix have done this for readers with their recently released collaboration, Rutherford B. Who Was He? Poems About Our Presidents (Disney Hyperion Books).

Who were these men
who had what it took
to be commander in chief of the armed forces,
to suggest what to do with our country's resources?

Forty-three presidents are presented in thirty-nine poetic verses in forms as varied as the men themselves.  In sequential order from Washington to Obama, we get a glimpse of their accomplishments, challenges and shortcomings.  History's facts and interpretations are revealed.

You have to wonder how the nation would have fared if George Washington had lived a quiet life at Mount Vernon, as he wanted after the Revolution, instead of becoming the first president of the United States.  The bickering, the clash of ideologies, between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson is a dialogue to note.  How many can recall stubbornness and cold weather lead to the short term of William Henry Harrison?

Polk's promises, Johnson's impeachment, Grant's troubles and Hayes's neutrality bookend the man wearing the stovepipe hat, Abraham Lincoln.  A wife's proclamation, a gripping bathtub and a roaring decade leave their mark on other administrations.  It must have been hard to run for re-election with the public's cry of


A new deal, stopping the buck, working behind the scenes, going to the moon and another war defined five presidencies. Whether they came to office by election or fate Watergate haunted two.  A farmer, an actor, a father and his son, a governor and a senator, have all lead our nation.

As I read each of these poems, my admiration for the writing of Marilyn Singer grew.  She reminds us of aspects of these men's lives we have forgotten.  She educates us with information we never knew.  She invites us to dig deeper into the past.

The rhythms and rhymes she creates draw us through the centuries; time speeds quickly by in her hands.  Her techniques are masterful; poems in conversation between Adams and Jefferson illuminating their differences, Jackson and Van Buren revealing positions on westward expansion, and Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan lamenting the status of the Union and the reverso poem, her signature style, on Richard Nixon. Clever, candid and to the point, she gives us the men; these men who were and are president of these United States.

One of the first things you notice about the jacket over the red cloth cover, with the title embossed at the top, is the layout and design.  All the elements are working together perfectly to draw your attention to this book.  The typography, the patriotic colors, President Hayes holding his portrait as other presidents  are gathered about him, animated, as if attending an annual meet and greet are marvelous in their detail and expression.  The single illustration on the back, which appears again beneath the introductory poem, of the eagle from the Great Seal, items from the seal placed about him, reading a book on presidents, is a favorite illustration.

John Hendrix brings his own special brand of historical interpretation and perspective to each of his illustrations.  All the intricate parts work together to make a whole which causes you to pause.  His facial expressions, body postures and the setting in which each man is placed enhance and elevate the text.

Many of the individual pictures are tied together, crossing the gutter with common items.  His color palette choices (the blues swirling about Harrison, the bright, golden yellow behind Grant, the charcoal used as the background for Kennedy and Johnson or the economic graphs joining Bush and Clinton) and lettering and placement of the presidential quotes are impeccable.  I've always believed it's the attention to the little things which lifts any endeavor from good to great; the smoking pipe of peace on the mantel beneath Adam's portrait as Jefferson sits by the fire, his quote embedded in the smoke rising out the chimney, the tiny American flag upright as it was placed on the moon in a glow from the television showcasing Kennedy speaking, or the buttons worn by Bush and Clinton, no taxes and saxes.

Truthfully I can't stop looking at the illustrations, noticing something different each time. I have many favorites but the picture of Abraham Lincoln from the back, face slightly turned, the poem within the stove pipe hat and his quote around the brim, is one of them.  It is the only one in this book with this viewpoint.

I count Rutherford B. Who Was He? Poems About Our Presidents written by Marilyn Singer with illustrations by John Hendrix one of the best poetry books of 2013.  I can see it having multiple uses in the classroom setting promoting discussions on poetic forms, research on the presidents and the importance of illustrative storytelling.  For those people who love United States history, this volume is a must.

At the close of the book is a section on Meet The President followed by more information on each of the men.  A quote from each is included.  It should also be noted that within the body of the book each poem is titled with the presidential names with their party and terms of service underneath.  Please follow the links embedded in the author's and illustrator's names above to their websites.  The link to John Hendrix's blog post shows many illustrations about the process involved with this title along finished pages.


  1. I'm a big fan of both Marilyn and John, and cannot wait to see this book! Love your enthusiastic, insightful, detailed review. It sounds like a very rich and entertaining collection of poems and pictures.

    1. Good morning Jama! (almost afternoon in my neck of the woods)
      Knowing your love of poetry I think this book will truly resonate with you. I have the deepest admiration for how Marilyn makes language work for her the way she does. As a fan of John Hendrix, you will want this book. I think his work is wonderful. This books is a shining example. Thank you for stopping by my blog today. Happy New Year!