So You Want to be President?
In my day (did I just say that?), Washington and Lincoln each had a celebratory day in January and February marking their unique positions among these men, 43 in all as of the writing of this book, who have helped shape our country’s history. That custom has morphed into Presidents’ Day, an acknowledgement of the position it is said that every American boy or girl can aspire to achieve, hence the title of the book, So You Want to be President?
To my mind there are three distinct qualities any great nonfiction children’s book should possess in order to have kid appeal. It should be factual, fun, and fresh. This book is all three. It doesn’t hurt that it won the Caldecott Medal in 2000 for Best Illustrated Picture Book. That just seems to make it a lock. Parents or grandparents will enjoy reading this right along with their youngster, and teachers will find many uses in the classroom. I bet an “I didn’t know that” will escape alternately from listeners, coupled with much chuckling over the foibles, errant behavior, and backgrounds of these not-so-perfect human individuals who have occupied the highest seat in the land. Relayed in a straightforward, yet completely charming fashion each portrait and anecdote comes fully alive.
The author cleverly groups presidents by interesting characteristics, such as being born in a log cabin—did you know that 8 presidents were born in one?—which highlights the commonality of experience. Individuality and personality are also uniquely and strongly portrayed in anecdotes of these 43 men who have uttered the 35 historic life-changing and fateful words of the presidential oath of office. David Small’s compelling caricature-like renderings of the presidents play expertly against Judith St. George’s facts and frippery, illuminating our presidents, warts and all. To that end, here is a small sampling of tidbits I found by turns witty, interesting, and jaw-dropping:
- William Howard Taft, obviously at 300 pounds the most rotund of presidents to grace the rotunda, was so big he had a special tub built for the White House bathroom. Four men could easily fit in it.
- Lincoln’s retort back to someone who called him two-faced was, “If I am two-faced, would I wear the face that I have now?”
- You want pets, we have them. Shetland ponies have ridden in White House elevators. Quentin Roosevelt, the young son of Theodore, brought his Shetland pony upstairs to cheer up a sick brother.
- Thomas Jefferson could have applied to Mensa. He was an expert on agriculture, law, politics, music, geography, surveying, philosophy, and History. Oh, and he founded the University of Virginia and wrote the Declaration of Independence in his spare moments!
I could go on, but then you wouldn’t read the book. And you must. The most telling quote that reveals the common humanity and the huge expectations awaiting any man or woman who utters those familiar words of the oath of office falls, of course, to Lincoln, who said, “I know very well 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 and take the course I feel I ought to take.” Amazing words! These words need to be heard by succeeding generations of children who more than ever need resilience and determination in the face of adversity and a confidence in their own abilities. Thank you, Mr. Presidents!
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