I know Presidents’ Day is long gone by now, but there’s always next year (and fifth grade president reports this spring, right? people still do those?)!
While many kids learn all they know about the POTUS through their parents’ gritted teeth or abject praises, there are somewhat more subjective (and citable!) ways for children to learn about the lives and legacies of the past and present inhabitants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In addition to a couple books about individual presidents (had a hard time finding too many that weren’t your standard elementary biography) and several encyclopedic anthologies, I’m including a list of some books that look fun and with focuses on others who have made their homes under the presidential roof.
George Washington and the General’s Dog, by Frank Murphy, illustrated by Richard Walz (2002): This Step Into Reading book (my edition says step 2–early independent readers, 1st-3rd grade-ish) focuses on George Washington’s love of animals and one particular, obscure incident where he returned the opposing general’s dog to him after it was separated from him during battle as an acknowledgment of the bond between master and dog. Although the setting is obviously wartime, there is no blood or mention of casualties, so the story reveals a facet of Washington’s personality through a true story and is completely appropriate for very young readers. Included in the author’s note are images of George Washington on his horse, the note sent about the dog, Alexander Hamilton (who penned the note), and William Howe.
Looking at Lincoln, by Maira Kalman (2012): Decidedly whimsical, this book reproduces (in the illustrator’s own style) many iconic images relating to one of the most celebrated presidents of the United States. The author’s periodic musings throughout, as she interacts with the researched information, appear to be hand-lettered, and this helps set them apart from the statements of fact gleaned from the sources listed at the end of the book. Also included at the end are some brief notes of explanation for some of the images and people and events mentioned in the text.
So You Want to Be President?, by Judith St. George, illustrated by David Small (2000): Sadly, the only copy of this I can find is terribly out-of-date–the last president it discusses is George H. W. Bush (and just calls him George Bush since there was no need for differentiation when it was published) and it mentions the lack of diversity in the office, and that has changed since its printing as well. (Reviews on Amazon say it’s been updated, but I can’t find a copy to confirm that.) I love the piecemeal approach of the So You Want to Be… series in that it brings up connections and names and random facts that are interesting enough to spark further research; it’s definitely not a book for research in itself! This book also won the Caldecott Medal in 2001 for its fun illustrations representing the presidents. Perhaps my favorite part of this book, however, is the ending pages where the author encourages any child who wants to be president to emulate the good qualities of the presidents who have gone before–no one is perfect, but everyone can try to do the best he or she can do!
Don’t Know Much About the Presidents, by Kenneth C. Davis, illustrated by Pedro Martin (2002): I have always really liked Kenneth C. Davis’ Don’t Know Much About… books. Intended for elementary-aged children, this book (like the others in the series) tackles simple questions that children might have (“Why is it called the White House?”) as well as creating some other questions to impart trivia or important information about the subject. Although more for curiosity’s sake than for research, each president’s section gives information about his years in office and a timeline that helps place the president’s term(s) in history. Always a fun series to have in a classroom or library! (My copy only goes through George W. Bush, but there seems to be an update available that is the one linked through the cover image!)
The Presidents of the United States, by Simon Andrews (2001): With timelines for major events in the lives and presidencies of each man and a brief sidebar telling the term, party, vice-president, first lady, and the number of states in the union, this book provides information that is suited to elementary age students. The text is written with headings, important terms in bold (defined in a simple glossary), and highlighted with reproductions and images of related paintings, sculptures, and documents from that president’s life, making this much like a social studies text for elementary students (maybe a homeschool textbook?). I actually really like this book for research for young learners or older students who need a simpler style or reading level. Unfortunately, no more recent editions of this book have come out, so it ends with our 43rd president. (Also, the George Washington cherry tree story is reported in a text box and is not labeled a legend; there could be other snippets like that which I missed, but it seems less likely with the less “legendary” presidents.)
Presidents (Eyewitness Books), written by James Braber in association with the Smithsonian Institution (2000): As is typical of Eyewitness Books, this book about the Presidents is big on images and information, but most of the content is to be found in the captions and short paragraphs on each topic. My copy is out an out-of-date edition, but the newest edition has a CDROM of clip art, a wall chart, and is apparently updated to include presidents through Barack Obama. (My copy ends with Clinton.) Because of the way the information is organized, the book is great for browsing and for finding fast facts (birth and death information and term dates are found in sidebars for each president). The presidents with more contributions to history (such as Washington, Eisenhower, and FDR) and more recent presidents have the most extensive sidebars of information and include information such as the exact date of inauguration, the age of the president, political party, and family information in addition to key historical events for the most influential presidents of the past. With an index for finding key information, this book could be used for some research, but the information is patchy enough that it is more likely a book for middle to upper elementary age students with an interest in tidbits of information about the presidents rather than extensive research.
Our Country’s Presidents (3rd edition), by Ann Bausum, foreword by President Barack Obama (2009): Since this National Geographic book was published in 2009, it has only a scant entry on the writer of the foreword, Barack Obama. However, the rest of the book is overflowing with detail, images, sidebars of information, and interrupting essays about historical events and other information with timelines that help place the presidents where they belong in history (which can be an extremely vague concept to many people, especially children). While it is definitely not the kind of book most people would just sit down and read through, the beginning of the book offers explanations of how it is set up and how to use the contents. Some interesting parts of each entry include a copy of the official presidential portrait (mostly paintings, some photographs), each president’s signature, and many images of primary source documents, photographs, mementos, and paintings from each term. Perfect for research or reference, budding historians, and future presidential hopefuls in upper elementary and middle school. (There is a more current edition, published in 2013. The large image of President Obama has been subbed out for an image of Washington; Obama is now shown in the strip at the bottom of the cover instead of Washington, and this is possibly because the 2009 edition was updated and printed to be put out in time for Obama’s inauguration and reverts to a more standard image with our first president as the “headliner” for the newest edition. Strangely, however, the image of Kennedy in the showcase at the bottom has been replaced by an image of Reagan instead–perhaps to avoid having three Democratic presidents featured and only Lincoln as a Republican?)
Michael Townsend’s Where Do Presidents Come From?: And other Presidential Stuff of Super-Great Importance, by Michael Townsend (2012): As you can probably tell by both the title and the cover image, this book is a somewhat unorthodox book about the presidency. It’s actually printed in graphic novel (also known as comic book) style and presents a huge amount of information (from presidential elections to the job of the president to presidential retirement) in a silly, accessible way. Recommended for upper elementary to middle school students because of the vast amount of information and unusual presentation style, this book is a good way to get an uninterested reader interested in the office of the president.
Lives of the Presidents: Fame, Shame (and What the Neighbors Thought), by Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt (2011): Covering all United States presidents from one to forty-four, some (the most notable and most recent) more deeply than others, this book provides primarily child-friendly, balanced information that would be of interest to upper elementary and middle school students. The public and private behavior of the presidents and their wives, their children and pets, any major accomplishments or scandals, and any inconsistencies between their private beliefs and their political opinions and actions are discussed in addition to the more trivial information. (This means that potentially PG-13 topics such as affairs, indiscretions, and unhealthy habits are mentioned in matter-of-fact, non-graphic ways, and anything suspected or gossiped about but unproven is typically stated as such. While these topics are not as big of a focus as they seemed in the artists book of the same series, I do recommend that a responsible adult previews this book and knows his or her child’s ability to handle more mature information before handing it over for independent perusal.) Interestingly, the one bit of information you will not find in this book is each president’s political party; a child is left to form an opinion of the person without the label to influence the decision. (I must admit that I feel decidedly more charitable toward Andrew Jackson–a president I remember for his irreverent treatment of the White House furniture!–now that I’ve learned that, shortly before he took office, his young wife died of an apparent heart attack brought on by stress due to the personal-attack campaign of his adversaries.) Besides their life in office, many of the mini-biographies include personal background information and what the president did after leaving office. Includes a bibliography.
First Ladies (Eyewitness Books), by Amy Pastan in association with the Smithsonian Institution (2009): Again, an Eyewitness Book is a great browsing book with a ton of information tucked away in captions, images, and charts. Obviously less space is dedicated to each of these women than to their presidential spouses in the companion book, but the pictures and information will delight anyone interested in knowing more about the women in the White House! (In the Find Out More section at the end of the book, you can find websites and tourist attractions related to these women and their accomplishments!)
White House Kids: The Perks, Pleasures, Problems, and Pratfalls of the Presidents’ Children, by Joe Rhatigan (2012): Organized not by president but by general topic, this book provides a look into the lives of children in the White House. Photographs, illustrations, and other images are included to illustrate the information, presented as short blurbs of related information under a heading such as “The Most Daring Stunts.” Also includes several appendices with further information about the presidential children mentioned, a list of the presidents and their wives, a bibliography, and an index to help find information scattered throughout the text about specific people.
Presidential Pets: The Weird, Wacky, Little, Big, Scary, Strange Animals That Have Lived in the White House, by Julie Moberg, illustrated by Jeff Albrecht Studios (2012): This book is cleverly disguised as being about the presidential pets (and might be a way to sneak a book about the presidents into the hands of an animal lover!), but it actually is another book that gives basic facts about each of the presidents. Each president’s page has a (somewhat cheesy) poem about the president’s pets as well as a “Tell Me More!” list that both discusses more about the pets and the president. Each page also has an “Accomplishments & Events” (of the president, not the pets!) and “Presidential Stats” (basic info) list as well as a large and silly illustration about the pets mentioned.
I know I didn’t even begin to scratch the surface here, but if you know of any high-quality biographies (particularly ones that aren’t the typical stale fare–those are everywhere!) about a president, please leave a comment to share your bounty!