So You Want to be President

It’s good to be the president, eh?

In my last post about the odd and enduring picture book legacy of former U.S. President William H. Taft, I mentioned the Caldecott-winning picture book So You Want to be President?, written by Judith St. George and illustrated by David Small. It is seriously one of the best nonfiction picture books about American history that I’ve ever read and, with the 2012 U.S. President Election rapidly approaching, I actually can’t think of a better history book to share with younger kids who are just starting to register the elections on their radar.

So You Want to be President? is not a partisan book AT ALL, which is one of its best qualities. Rather, St. George and Small go out of their way to portray the American Presidents as human beings – much time is spent breaking down the demographic details of the men who’ve made it into the Oval Office.

So You Want to Be President

If you want to feel good about the American presidency this election season, this is a great place to start…

For example, the book, structured around the question “So You Want to Be President?”, offhandedly mentions at one point, “You probably weren’t born in a log cabin. That’s too bad. People are crazy about log-cabin Presidents. They elected eight.” We learn a lot about where presidents came from, what they did before they were presidents, and both the good and the bad accomplished in the name of the presidency are acknowledged.

St. George does a fantastic job of creating an engaging, data-driven portrait of the history of the American presidency, while, at the same time, really conveying that call that drives a person to become the President as something ultimately positive and aspirational. To quote St. George, discussing the various presidents:

Some succeeded. Some failed. If you want to be President – a good President – pattern yourself after the best. Our best have asked more of themselves than they thought they could give. They have had the courage, spirit, and will to do what they knew was right.

All that plus the book is a hoot to read and is visually brilliant, thanks to David Small. (We even get to see Nixon bowling!) What more could you want?

So You Want to Be President?

The original edition of “SYWTBP” paid a nice tribute to those who hadn’t made it to the White House yet… at least, not when the book was originally published.

I have just one additional note to add about So You Want to be President? – Be aware that there are several editions of the book currently in circulation. The picture book was originally published in 2001 and it’s been revised twice since then. The first revision (in 2004) worked in information about George W. Bush. There were sections in the original picture book that talked about relatives that became presidents and the number of presidents named “George”, so the revision makes total sense. And, according to Penguin, there was also an even newer revision that has incorporated information about Barack Obama. I find that revision to be particularly significant, not because of my personal politics, but rather because both the original and 2004 editions include a page where St. George informs her readers:

Every President was different from every other and yet no woman has been President. No person of color has been President.

And that page is accompanied by an illustration of Jesse Jackson and Geraldine Ferraro standing in a roped-off section just outside of the oval office. I haven’t seen the new edition – my library only has the original versions – so I’m not sure if Ferraro is now all alone in that waiting area, but I’m definitely pleased to have one less person waiting in the wings to one day make it to the White House.

If you’re interested to learn more about So You Want to be President?, watch this clip from the great Weston Woods animated version of the book (narrated by Stockard Channing) and consider reading it with your children before November 6th. You won’t regret it.

(If you can’t see the video due to Flash issues, click here to see it. You can also find a much longer, less interesting video read-through of the entire book here.)


William H. Taft

All the hip kids are into Taft these days, right?

One of the best things about having kids is that they just so deliriously, gloriously weird. And I mean “weird” in the absolute best sense of the word. I love how impossibly random my daughter can be. She’s just this beautiful little sponge who soaks up so many inputs and pieces of information from the world around her, and I never can predict how she’s going to process that information and spit it back out again. This is all a prelude to explain why I was so surprised that one family vacation and one trip to our local library could ever inspire my five-year-old daughter to turn to me one day and say, with complete earnestness, “Dad, my absolute favorite U.S. President is President William H. Taft.”

That’s right. William H. Taft. The twenty-seventh President of the United States. Also known as “Not one of our best-known presidents AT ALL.” He’s the guy who came after Teddy Roosevelt, a.k.a. “TOTALLY one of our best-known presidents, plus he was in those Night at the Museum movies, so it REALLY wouldn’t be weird if your five-year-old knew HIM.” But, nope, my kid likes Taft. She’s funny that way.

So, how did my daughter become enamoured with a president whom some might understandably label as “obscure”? Well, earlier this year, we visited some friends who live right outside of Washington D.C., and we spent one day walking around the National Mall, seeing the White House, visiting the various memorials, and generally having a great time. I wasn’t prepared for how much my daughter enjoyed the experience. She was endlessly curious about everything we walked past, and I spent the day trying to explain everything from the legacy of Abraham Lincoln to the cause of the Korean War.

(One of my favorite moments was, while standing outside the FBI Building, finding myself very seriously explaining The X-Files to my five-year-old. I, apparently, want my kid to “believe.”)

But, for whatever reason, the thing that really interested my daughter were the U.S. Presidents and, when told she could pick out one souvenir, she selected a laminated placemat with all the presidents on it from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial gift shop. She combed over that placemat for our whole drive home to Michigan, peppering us with constant questions like “What’s a Whig?” or “Which were the good presidents and which were the bad presidents?”

William H. Taft

William H. Taft: The Man Knows His Food…

We were walking to our local library a few days after we got home from D.C. and my daughter informed me that she wanted to get some books on the presidents. I said that was a great idea, and she then asked me if I knew any stories about the presidents. I paused for a moment and said, “Well, did you hear about the president who was so fat he got stuck in the White House bathtub?” That was, of course, William H. Taft.

My daughter’s eyes went HUGE with excitement. “You are joking,” she said. “Really?” She then started laughing hysterically. Once she stopped, I recounted a half-remembered anecdote about Taft, being the fattest president on record, once getting stuck in the tub – a bathtub that he later replaced with a tub supposedly big enough to bathe four men. My daughter went CRAZY for this story. She loved it. She couldn’t get enough of it. She kept asking me for more details, which I didn’t have. I’d heard the story once before and wasn’t entirely sure it was true.

Once we got to the library, my daughter ran over to the youth librarian and the two of them disappeared into the stacks together. Minutes later, she came running back to me, beaming and holding a picture book. “I found it! I found it!” she yelled.  And she opened her book to a lovely illustration of the late great William H. Taft being hoisted out of a bathtub.

William H. Taft

The picture in question…

I don’t think my daughter thought I was lying about my Taft story, but the fact that she was able to find a book so quickly with such visual proof of my anecdote – she just thought it was the best thing in the world. That something that crazy could actually happen to an American President. It somehow turned Taft into this legendary figure in her mind, far more interesting than John Adams or Richard Nixon. [read the rest of the post…]

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Last Monday was the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day where my daughter was old enough to actually ask us about Dr. King and the resulting discussion was awkward, to say the least. The awkwardness began with my daughter’s recounting of what she’d learned about Dr. King in kindergarten, which, of course, was completely jumbled and reprioritized once it passed through her still-developing brain. First, we heard that Dr. King had bombs thrown at his house, then we heard that he got shot (“With a gun, Dad. With a GUN. And he DIED.”), and then we heard, “He just wanted people to love each other.”  And those were my daughter’s main talking points about Martin Luther King Jr.  – bombs, a gun, and loving each other. It was weird and earnest and cute all at the same time.

Martin's Big Words

Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We went to a bookstore on MLK Day and my daughter got very excited to see a picture book on Dr. King that her teacher had read in class – Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport and Bryan Collier. She was so enthusiastic about the book that we bought it for her and spent her bedtime reading and discussing it. Martin’s Big Words is an excellent introduction to the life of Dr. King and the concept of “civil rights” as a whole. My daughter was extremely confused about why white people could make a black person give up their seat on a bus, so we had to try to explain racial inequality to her on the fly and I think it went OK. It’s always hard to tell what she absorbed and what she didn’t, but it was a good discussion to have and Martin’s Big Words was a great facilitator of that discussion.

And Martin’s Big Words doesn’t shy away from things like Dr. King’s assassination, but, to its credit, it does present those details in a very authoritative, non-threatening way for younger readers. I was impressed at how, as a book, it balanced the concerns of its young reading audience with its mission of educating those same kids about the reality of the American civil rights movement. Our kid’s nonfiction collection at home is primarily made up of science books at the moment, so I’m actually really pleased to have such a great work of social history in our home library now.

As I’ve mentioned on this site before, the second that I found out that I was having a daughter, the g-word – GENDER –  became a BIG priority for me. I started spending an obnoxious amount of time examining how gender was addressed in every book that came our way, from The Berenstain Bears to Madeline. However, when I look at a book like Martin’s Big Words, I get concerned that – while spending so much energy worrying about gender, steadfastly letting my daughter know that she didn’t need a prince to save her and plying her with books that backed that argument up – our home library may have relatively ignored two other major social concerns that perhaps deserved the same attention. Those two issues in question? Race and class. [read the rest of the post…]