Quote of the Month

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

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Hail To The Chief

There have been twelve presidents elected and who resided in the White House during my lifetime.  Some served more than one term and not all of them finished their terms.  The sound of the school secretary's voice over the PA announcing the assassination of JFK as we sat in seventh grade math class is still easy to recall.  It's been a privilege to vote in the last ten presidential elections.  It's even more exciting to know in two months our nation will be voting for the first time with a women running for president representing the Democratic Party.

Knowing about our presidents gives us a more personal view of American history and in a larger context world history.  A new collection of short essays on our presidents, Grover Cleveland, Again!: A Treasury Of American Presidents (Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, July 12, 2016) written by Ken Burns with David Blistein and Cauley Powell and illustrated by Gerald Kelley, will give you the inside scoop on the individuals serving in the Oval Office.  Their accomplishments and less-than-stellar decisions are revealed.

I have four daughters---Sarah, Lilly, Olivia and Willa.  When they were little and had trouble falling asleep, I would recite the names of the presidents to them. (Yes, that's a historian's idea of a lullaby!)

This is how A Note From Ken Burn begins this book.  His passion for history and the presidents is evident in every paragraph.  His goal is to provide commentary on them as people.

As our first president George Washington has repeatedly been the subject of books but until now how many of you know the people behind the Revolutionary War chose him unanimously to lead the troops.  You may realize the unfaltering love John and Abigail Adams shared but their letter writing skills might top the charts; more than one thousand letters were exchanged.  It's intriguing to know Abigail encouraged John to include women in the are created equal sentence.  There is a legend about Dolly Madison saving the original Declaration of Independence from the British when they burned down the Capitol and the White House.  She hid in the woods for several days.

John Quincy Adams allowed his pet alligator to swim in the bathtub in the East Room of the White House.  Martin Van Buren had tiger cubs for pets which eventually found a home in the zoo at Congress's urging.  The only president to leave these United States was John Tyler, championing for the South during the Civil War.  Did you know Abraham Lincoln kept significant documents under his stovepipe hat?

Many of these presidents were fortunate to have distinguished women as their wives.  Rutherford B. Hayes' wife, Lucy, was the first First Lady to have a college education.  Did you know there was a president who could write with both hands at the same time in two different languages?  Guess which president is the only one to get married in the White House?  His wife told employees they would be back in four years and they were.

One of the largest presidents in size and weight was the first one to throw out a baseball on Opening Day.  Do you remember which president helped to pass the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote?  (It's appalling when there need to be amendments granting people rights which should have been in place from the beginning.) A justice of peace swore in his own son as president on his farm in the wee hours of the morning.  Guess who went back to sleep?

Have you ever heard of a game called Hoover-Ball? Most of us know of Barack Obama's fondness for basketball but there was a president who walked two miles every morning at a lightning pace in a suit and tie. I remember Dwight D. Eisenhower because his birthday is the same day as my sister's birthday.  She got a card from the White House every year.  But his more far reaching accomplishment is the system of roads stretching between the states which he started building.

Most of us probably had no idea how those first televised presidential debates we watched would influence an election.  How many presidents can say they helped the hungry, sick, and those needing early education with laws still functioning today?  Did you know there is a president who owned five homes by the time he was teenager?  Did you know there is a president who still parachutes to commemorate his survival from doing the same thing when his plane was shot down in WWII?  Each individual has brought something unique to this office.  With each entry you find yourself stepping back in time moving forward to the present amazed at the information supplied.

For each president Ken Burns supplies conversational commentary tying threads of known and unknown facts into a pleasing whole.  Outside the larger essay of several paragraphs there are two, three, four or five flags containing additional pieces of interesting personal information.  The official portrait for each president is placed above a series of facts:  term served, birth date, place of birth, date of death with their age, sisters, brothers, occupations, their vice-president, party, nickname, wife, children (daughters and sons listed individually), pets and other famous places their picture can be found like on a coin, bill or national monument.  There are several other flags throughout the book which explain large government issues like banks and money, amendments, states' rights, checks and balances, tariffs, electoral votes and popular votes, who can be president, the role of the presidents' wives, name calling (when Americans were accused of being Communists) and taxes.  Each explanation is easily understood.  Here are some sample passages.  There are so many powerful essays it's hard to choose a portion of only one.

For much of his life, ULYSSES S. GRANT was considered a failure.  He didn't study very much.  He did okay as a soldier in the Mexican-American War, but when the army sent him out west, after years of struggling financially and missing his family, he resigned.  He moved home and began to farm.  But by 1857, the farm had failed, and in 1858, the Grants had to move on.
So it's kind of amazing that by 1864 this "failure" was leading the entire Union Army.  And in 1868, he was elected president of the United States.
What changed?  Maybe nothing.  Maybe all those failures taught him how to have courage and keep going, even in the face of difficulties.  During the Civil War, he led his soldiers again and again into dangerous battles.  Other generals thought he was too reckless.  But President Lincoln said, "I can't spare this man---he fights."

HOW SILENT WAS CAL??? Coolidge talked so little that when he announced the big news that he was not going to run for a second term, all he did was write the message on strips of paper and hand them to the newspaper people.  

Have you ever imagined how truly marvelous it would be if all the presidents could meet and chat about their experiences?  On the matching dust jacket and book case Gerald Kelley gives us an excellent image of this moment with five presidents on the front and five presidents on the back.  In these two visuals his skills in drawing realistic portraits shines.

Rendered in pencil and digital color each president is given an illustration spanning two pages.  On the side opposite the commentary the picture is more vivid in color and detail with the remainder of the image lighter allowing for the placement of text and flags.  Each image is a selected highlight from the text.  The event he chooses to feature can be serious, lighthearted, or humorous.  Each is a study of his choice, varying in perspective and at times a collage of people, places and moments.

One of my favorite illustrations of many is John Adams writing a letter at his desk with the light of a kerosene lamp.  His gaze is outward.  To the right is a softer picture of Abigail reading a letter in front of a window.  This is a lovely depiction showcasing Kelley's gift with light and shadow, shading and lines.

Readers of all ages will find much to enjoy in Grover Cleveland, Again!: A Treasury of American Presidents written by Ken Burns with illustrations by Gerald Kelley.  All personal and professional collections need to have a copy of this book.  I think it would be an excellent choice for a read aloud; one president per day leading up to the election.  A glossary of forty-eight terms is included at the end.

To learn more about Ken Burns and Gerald Kelley please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  You can view multiple images from the book at Gerald Kelley's site as well as at the publisher's website.  There are pages dedicated to Ken Burns at PBS.  Ken Burns talks about this title at Publishers Weekly, and in an article at The Washington Post, What Ken Burns left out of his new kids' book about presidents, and why

Please be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the selections of the other participating bloggers in the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.


  1. I'll have to put this on my to-read list now, since I've heard so much about it lately. Thanks, Margie!

    1. I can't believe how much I learned Maria. Ken Burns has a knack for getting the most interesing things out in the open. Kelley's illustrations are gorgeous.