Quote of the Month

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

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Man Who Loved Books...And Libraries

Despite the passing of decades, the immense feeling of wonder when first entering the Library of Congress still remains vivid in my memory.  The collections of gathered words and illustrations surround you in a quiet embrace of reverence.  On April 24th of this year, the Library of Congress will have been in existence for two hundred fourteen years.

Originally kept in the Capitol in Washington, D. C. as a small library of resources for the legislators, its contents were burned in 1814 when British troops set fire to the building.  A man with a known passion for books and reading offered his extensive library as a replacement.  In January of 1815 Congress allowed compensation in the sum of $23,950 for his 6,487 books *.  This man was Thomas Jefferson.  Author Barb Rosenstock and illustrator John O'Brien chronicle the growth of this affection for the printed word in Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library (Calkins Creek, an imprint of Highlights, September 2013).

Thomas Jefferson learned to read.  And then, he never stopped.

It is said before he turned six and entered school, he read the entire contents of his father's library, all forty-nine books.  He did accomplish other requirements for a young man of his time; learning French and Latin, the proper way to dance, and playing the fiddle.  It was reading, when given the choice, which occupied hours of every day.  His method of organizing his book collections is intriguing to say the least.

Marriage, children, the building of Monticello and the writing of the Declaration of Independence did not deter this man from the importance of reading. With his encouragement his family acquired a taste for books, too. For the remainder of his life, he carried a paper with words written by him and his wife, Martha, from their favorite book wrapped in a lock of her hair.

After the untimely death of Martha, Thomas Jefferson traveled to France to act as an ambassador seeking assistance.  The libraries and booksellers feed his soul's need to not only read but further develop his personal library.

Tom bought two thousand books in five years, more than a book a day.

During his two terms as president, he tripled the number of volumes in the library at the Capitol.  Even after his retirement back at Monticello his love of books, reading and writing continued.  A special book stand in his library revolved allowing him to read five books at a time.  Like a true lover of books, he shared them with others as a loan or a gift and continued to purchase more.

Thomas Jefferson believed in the United States of America.  Thomas Jefferson believed in the power of books.  When the fire of 1814 destroyed the collection in Washington, D. C., Thomas Jefferson did the only thing he could do.

One of the truly appealing aspects of this book is the presentation of the information.  Barb Rosenstock has written two loosely connected narratives. As the first documents the life of Thomas Jefferson with reference to this love of reading, the second adds interesting, more detailed information in the form of quotes and specific facts.  Each compliments and supplements the other in a harmonious flow.  Here is a single example.

He sailed, and he read.
He bounced in fancy carriages, and he read.
He bowed to the king, charmed the court,
helped his country, and he read.

"Books were at all times his
chosen companions."
---Ellen Wayles Randolph, granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson

Upon opening up the matching jacket and book case, readers (and those loving books as much as Thomas Jefferson) will be hard pressed not to smile at the scene of him shelving books among the block letters spelling the title, as four small children, a dog and cat are reading.  An exceedingly clever title page shows Thomas Jefferson on a scaffold building a library out of books with his quotation,

"I cannot live without books."  ---Thomas Jefferson, 1815

embedded in an open book over the doorway.  Many of the added specifics appear in open books with smaller explanatory pictures on most of the other pages.  These books are tucked within the main illustration, sometimes even crossing the gutter.

The intricate lines used by John O'Brien make every single page one to savor.  His inclusion of the smallest elements add interest; small gravestones for the loss of Jefferson's children, a hand reaching in from the bottom of the page to support a quote, Napoleon serving Jefferson a shape resembling the size of the Louisiana Purchase on a plate or giving the library burning in 1814 the form of a large open book, bottom edges down, pages spread open.  The enthusiasm Jefferson brought to all his achievements is evident in facial expressions and body postures.  One of my favorite illustrations is on the final two pages.  The head of Thomas Jefferson is shown close-up as he holds an open book in his hands.  On those pages of the open book is the library full of people reading.  On the right-hand side is a younger Jefferson handing books to a woman gathering them in an open apron.

The combination of writing by Barb Rosenstock and illustrations by John O'Brien in Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library makes this a first-class addition to those books about this prominent figure in American history.  I keep reading it over and over...it's that good.  You can't resist reading books which bring the past into the present.  With Presidents' Day less than two weeks away, I highly recommend the use of this title.

The final three pages include an extensive Author's Note, Thomas Jefferson, Slaveholder, Acknowledgements, Selected Bibliography and Source Notes* and more sources notes for all the quotations.  By following the link embedded in Barb Rosenstock's name you can gather further resources for this book (Educator's Guide) plus her other titles.  The link embedded in John O'Brien's name will give you access to his website.  Enjoy the book trailer.


*The Library of Congress-About the Library-History

I am excited to be participating in Alyson Beecher's 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted at her blog Kid Lit Frenzy.  Make sure you stop over there to see all the other nonfiction picture books showcased by other bloggers.


  1. I love books about the love of books! Just had Miss Dorothy's Bookmobile arrive in the mail for me. :-) What a lovely review of this title. Thanks Margie!

    1. Me too, Carrie! Thanks for your kind words and for a new title to read. And you are most welcome. I'm really enjoying this nonfiction picture book challenge.