Happy President’s Day! This is a holiday that commemorates Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, but it’s also a great time to reflect on the vigor of the US Constitution and to remember some others who have served as US President. Here’s my list of ten great nonfiction picture books about Presidents and the Presidency.
George Did It by Suzanne Tripp Jermain, illustrated by Larry Day. George Washington uncertain, uncomfortable, and unsure of himself? Kids will recognize some of their own fears and hesitations in this look at how George Washington did what he thought was necessary and right, even when it wasn’t what he really wanted to do. An inspirational look at the man who created the US presidency and at the reality of human weakness.
Phillis Sings Out Freedom: The Story of George Washington and Phillis Wheatley by Ann Malaspina, illustrated by Susan Keeter. Presidents don’t exist in a vacuum. This lovely story tells about a correspondence between Phillis Wheatley, a slave poet, and George Washington, during the darkest days of the Revolutionary War.
Those Rebels, John and Tom by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. This book is mostly about the writing of the Declaration of Indpendence, but it gives wonderful, memorable portraits of both the second and third presidents. It’s also a great mentor text if your class is discussing how to compare and contrast.
Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by John O’Brien. Books, books, and more books. This biography examines Jefferson through his love of books and reading. It also tells the story of how the Library of Congress came to be founded. The text is lively and a delight to read aloud.
My Name is James Madison Hemings by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Terry Widener. Thomas Jefferson’s legacy is troubling. He helped create enduring institutions of freedom, but he built them on the template of slavery. He spoke against slavery, but he did not free his own slaves. It’s tough to talk honestly and openly with young kids about Thomas Jefferson. We rightly celebrate the good he did, but it’s tough to find a way to acknowledge the dark side of his life. This book is a wonderful solution to that problem. It’s a celebratory biography of his slave son, James Madison Hemings. The story of Hemings’ life shows the dark side of Thomas Jefferson, but the book dwells on the things that Hemings accomplished, and how he made the institutions that his father helped create work for him, rather than on the troubling inconsistencies in Jefferson’s own life.
Lincoln Tells a Joke, by Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer, illustrated by Stacy Innerst. My favorite nonfiction biographies tease out a theme that illuminates someone’s life. Here, we see how Lincoln used humor in tense times to make his arguments, as well as to ease tension.
The Camping Trip That Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and the National Parks, by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mordecai Gerstein. Wonderful art tells the story of John Muir’s camping trip with Theodore Roosevelt. The back matter describes more completely what we do and don’t know about the trip. This is a great introduction to both of the men in it, as well as to the environmental movement in the US.
President Taft is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen, is not quite nonfiction. It’s based on true events–heavily commented on in a fantastic back matter–and the art depicts real people (check out some photos next to the art)–but the text itself has more of the tall tale. Still, the story is rollicking fun about one of the presidents under-represented in children’s books, and it incidentally gives kids a good lesson on what the Cabinet is.
Diana’s White House Garden by Elisa Carbone, illustrated by Jen Hill, tells the story of the girl who helped Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt grow a Victory garden at the White House. The dialogue in the book is invented but, as the back matter makes clear, it’s based on solid historical research. This story provides a kid-level view into the world of the White House and the time period of World War II.
Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith, Jr., illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Our presidents have made wrong choices. Sometimes they seized power and its trappings by climbing on the backs of the powerless. It’s worth remembering that part of history, too. Remembering those moments can work as a caution, but we also helps us celebrate those who helped create an institution that has the power to do great good in the world, even if that good didn’t change their lives for the better. This book movingly tells the story of how slave labor built the White House.