February 15, 2012
Most holiday-themed children's books, let's face it, aren't very good. Most are conceived and created mainly to be promoted at their respective times of the year, and accordingly aren't terribly inspired. And Presidents' Day would seem, if anything, an even worse holiday than usual for kids' books; the preponderance of those pegged to it that I've seen through the years have been dutifully dull marches through the cherry trees and log cabins.
But two new books—one for each president, each illustrated by an artist known (among other things) for New Yorker covers—are out to change that. George Washington's Birthday: A Mostly True Tale, by Margaret McNamara and illustrated by Barry Blitt, is a whimsical tale of George's own seventh birthday. The authors don't exactly shy away from the hagiographic details by any means—but, borrowing a page from Blitt's sublime 2006 solo outing The 39 Apartments of Ludwig Van Beethoven, drop in little "fact" and "myth" boxes here and there to set the record straight.
The book makes young George refreshingly human; as he becomes more and more frustrated that his entire family appears to have forgotten his birthday, he quite naturally, well, acts out a bit. Early on it's muted—muttering "I'll be the boss of you someday" under his breath to his older half-brother (who's also his teacher)—but of course it all culminates in big-time vented frustrations on that poor cherry tree.
McNamara's tone is delightful throughout, just breezy enough without losing its grounding in the parts of its narrative that are based in fact, and she makes our first president more approachable and sympathetic than he appears in just about any other children's book I can think of—even the ones in which he's a child. And Blitt's trademark warped-realistic watercolors complement her text wonderfully, adding an additional and quite funny level of expressiveness to our hero. This is one of those books that slowly turns up the corners of your mouth as you read.
Maira Kalman's Looking at Lincoln is similarly imaginative, and even similarly whimsical, but also (as befits its subject) more pensive. In it, a child narrator takes the reader through her own investigation of the guy on the five-dollar bill (as she initially thinks of him). She hits the big historical points, of course, but it's the Kalman-ian flights of fancy that really make this book special: the girl's picturing Lincoln loving apples and vanilla cake, for instance.
Actually, Kalman even lends the historical stuff this extra dimension—when it comes time to recount the president's tragic murder, she opens the scene by noting that after the horrors of war, Lincoln felt the need to laugh at something and thus went to see the fateful performance of the comedic play at Ford's Theatre. It's all presented in a somber, matter-of-fact voice that feels very true and right, both for the young narrator herself and for the children who'll be reading this book. Kalman is masterful at capturing the wonder of discovery that's at the heart of all the best history—and she somehow allows even an adult reader who knows a lot about Lincoln to partake in rediscovery.
[Cover images, from left: Courtesy of Random House; Courtesy of Penguin USA]