By Jay Fung
Cherry trees, stove pipe hat, wooden teeth, “fourscore and seven years ago,” $1 and $5 bills. These images conjure up two of the most iconic Americans in history. Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. We honor them in many ways, but most people nowadays remember them because we get a day off for President’s Day. (Some of us remember when we used to get two days before the “holiday” was consolidated into one!)
In any case, a number of intriguing children’s books that highlight these two men have been published in recent years. Although many of us can summarize both of their lives in some choice words, I would venture to guess that many of us don’t know much about their actual lives and history. Here are some titles that I have gathered that, although they are about Washington and Lincoln, vary widely in subject matter and approach.
George Washington’s Birthday: A Mostly True Tale by Margaret McNamara (Picture book, ages 4 and up) – From award-winning author Margaret McNamara and New Yorker artist Barry Blitt comes this partly true and completely funny story of George Washington’s 7th birthday. In this clever approach to history, readers will discover the truths and myths about George Washington. Did George Washington wear a wig? No. Did George Washington cut down a cherry tree? Probably not. Readers young and old, who are used to seeing George Washington as an old man, will get a new look at the first president—as a kid.
George Did It! By Suzanne Tripp Jurmain (Picture book, ages 5 and up) – Everyone wanted George Washington to be the president. He was responsible, led the army in a fight against the British, and helped write the Constitution. But being the president is a very important job, and George was too nervous. So, to everyone’s surprise, he said no! However, George had many supporters, and with the help of the cheering crowds and loyal advisers and dignitaries, George realized that he didn’t have time to think about how nervous he was, he just had to do his job. A fascinating look at the more personal side of an American icon.
The Crossing: How George Washington Saved the American Revolution by Jim Murphy (Chapter book, ages 8 and up) – The very familiar painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware graces the cover of Murphy’s latest book, but the story begins before that dramatic event, when the Second Continental Congress appoints Washington to lead the army in June 1775. Profoundly aware of his personal limitations as a commander, Washington struggles to turn his initially unruly officers and troops into a well-disciplined fighting force before the formidable British army brings the war—and the young country—to an untimely end. Focusing on the Continental army’s progress from Washington’s appointment through the Battle of Princeton in January 1777, this book recounts military events, setbacks, and successes as the tide of the war slowly began to turn. The excellent back matter includes a discussion of Leutze’s iconic painting, a time line of the Revolution, a list of Internet sites, and a lengthy partial list of books consulted. Murphy offers a refreshingly frank, vivid, well-researched account of a pivotal time in American history.
Abe’s Honest Words: the Life of Abraham Lincoln by Doreen Rappaport (Picture book, ages 8 and up) – From the time he was a young boy roaming the forests of the unsettled Midwest, Abraham Lincoln knew in his heart that slavery was deeply wrong. A voracious reader, Lincoln spent every spare moment of his days filling his mind with knowledge, from history to literature to mathematics, preparing himself to one day lead the country he loved towards greater equality and prosperity. Despite the obstacles he faced as a self-educated man from the back woods, Lincoln persevered in his political career, and his compassion and honesty gradually earned him the trust of many Americans. As president, he guided the nation through a long and bitter civil war and penned the document that would lead to the end of slavery in the United States.
Just in Time, Mr. Lincoln by Patricia Polacco (Picture book, ages 7 and up) – Michael and Derek don’t expect the adventure of a lifetime visiting a Civil War museum with their grandmother. But the mysterious museum keeper invites them to play a game, and before they know it, they’re walking through a door straight into a very realistic depiction of 1863. They see the destruction at the battlefield of Antietam, and even meet President Lincoln. Soon, they start to wonder if it’s really a game, after all – and suddenly they’re racing across Confederate-occupied land to return to their own time before it’s too late.
Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson (Chapter book, ages 12 and up) – The YA version of Swanson’s bestselling Manhunt, this account of Lincoln’s assassination and the 12-day search for his killer reads like a historical thriller, no matter that the narrative jumps among its locations and characters. As President Lincoln delivers victory speeches in April 1865, an enraged John Wilkes Booth vows death: “Now, by God, I’ll put him through.” Every bit of dialogue is said to come from original sources, adding a chill to the already disturbing conspiracy that Swanson unfolds in detail as Booth persuades friends and sympathizers to join his plot and later, to give him shelter. The author gives even the well-known murder scene at Ford’s Theatre enough dramatic flourish to make the subject seem fresh.
Looking for Lincoln by Maira Kalman (Picture book, ages 5 and up) – Abraham Lincoln is one of the first giants of history children are introduced to, and now Maira Kalman brings him to life with her trademark style and enthusiasm. Lincoln’s legacy is everywhere – there he is on your penny and five-dollar bill. And we are still the United States because Lincoln helped hold them together. The little girl in this book wants to find out. Among the many other things, she discovers our sixteenth president was a man who believed in freedom for all, had a dog named Fido, loved Mozart, apples, and his wife’s vanilla cake, and kept his notes in his hat. From his boyhood in a log cabin to his famous presidency and untimely death, Kalman shares Lincoln’s remarkable life with young readers in a fresh and exciting way.