How many times do you hear kids today say they want to grow up to be President? I spend a lot of time around kids, and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone say it, but there must be some children out there who aspire to be leader of the free world. Even if Presidential aspirations aren’t a part of their dreams, they’re sure to enjoy the delightful romp through Presidential history that is Judith St. George’s book about Presidents one through forty-two.
Ms. St. George has said that she wants her readers “to be aware that history is an ever-rolling stream and that the past can’t be separated from the present,” and that she wants to make her subjects as alive and human as possible. Judging by this book, she’s achieved both goals quite nicely. She’s aided by the illustrator, David Small (The Library, The Gardener), whose watercolor, ink, and pastel drawings bring the Presidents alive with wit and grace. The cover illustration alone is worth the price of the book – a rendering of Mount Rushmore with the faces looking as if they’re sharing a good joke, or as if they’ve just read Judith St. George’s Presidential anecdotes.
Instead of presenting the Presidents and their histories in chronological order, which runs the risk of being a great yawn, the book ties the Presidents together by commonalities. Thus, we have all the Georges, all the Williams and Johns and all the Jameses together in a discussion of the most common Presidential names; Lincoln and Harding together in a discussion of the ugliest and the prettiest, (When accused of being two-faced Lincoln once quipped, “If I am two-faced, would I wear the face that I have now?”); and Taft and Madison in a discussion of the biggest and the smallest.
But the author doesn’t limit herself to trivia. She also touches on their personalities, their educations, their motivations, and their honesty – or lack thereof. One of the best illustrations (though Clintonites would disagree) is of Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon descending the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, their heads bent in shame as Abraham Lincoln sternly looks down upon them. Finally, she quotes Abraham Lincoln in a message that every child should take to heart, no matter what they want to be when they grow up:
“I know very well that many others might in this matter as in others, do better than I can. But…I am here. I must do the best I can, and bear the responsibility of taking the course which I feel I ought to take.”
Come to think of it, that’s a message all adults should take to heart, too.