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White House the Star of New Children’s Book October 2, 2008

Whether the winner of our upcoming Presidential election in November is named Barack Obama or John McCain, one thing is for certain: he’ll be moving into the hallowed halls of the White House come January. (I wish I could state the exact date the term starts. It was a question on a recent Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?, which I occasionally watch with my fifth grader. Obviously I am way too removed from fifth grade to answer questions like that.) 

But back to the very cool point, which is naturally attached to a children’s book. An absolutely riveting new picture/coffee table book avoids all the election controversy and talk of electoral colleges and political parties and gives us a tribute to the structure that has remained constant since John Adams first brought in his bags in 1800: The White House.

Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out, published just last month by the often innovative Candlewick Press, is a virtual who’s who among the stars of the juvenile book world, big-name authors and illustrators including Katherine Paterson, David Macaulay, Eric Carle and Patricia and Fredrick McKissack. This collection of their offerings in the form of essays, artwork, personal accounts, and other creative contributions including poetry was gathered by the National Children’s Book and Literary Alliance.

Taking us from the design stage to the lifestyles of presidential pets and children to wartime to the press room, the creators give us much more to chew on than you might even think one building, however historic, could offer. The roles of immigrants, African Americans, and Native Americans are explored as well.

A companion Web site, www.ourwhitehouse.org, includes many other resources on the White House and American history.

This is a much-needed book that won’t fade away after the big election is over.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

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Kids’ Election Suggestions September 20, 2008

I blogged last week about presidential election books I don’t recommend for children (because these titles are really just campaign propaganda disguised as juvenile nonfiction — and one so-called biography I’d go as far as to classify as straight fiction).

But in sorting out some Caldecott and Newbery-award winning books for the Magic Bookshelf store, I ran across two real winners — one from each of these highly respected award programs at that.

From the picture book category (for which Caldecotts are generally awarded, primarily for illustrations) comes 2001’s So You Want to Be President? by Judith St. George, illustrated by David Small. This very fun and approachable book for ages 7+ serves up lots of trivia and humorous anecdotes about what being elected President really does take (and not always what you think).

For example, being named James (like six former presidents) is a help (I’ll be sure to tell that to my older son, James Riley); as is being born in a humble dwelling. A log cabin, preferably, like the birthplaces of a whopping eight Presidents. (Would a triplex apartment in midtown Atlanta, circa post-WWII count as humble enough? I’m still thinking about young Riley’s chances.)

Best of all, the Presidents have come not only from all walks of life but all kinds of occupational backgrounds. I certainly never knew Andrew Johnson had been a tailor, nor that he didn’t learn to read until the ripe old age of 14.

Moving on to the Newbery winner, and a rarity here because Newberys typically are awarded for fiction, is Russell Freedman’s lovely 1988 work, Lincoln: A Photobiography.

Lincoln offers plenty of text for older elementary-age and middle school readers, but includes fascinating photos to go with the full coverage of Lincoln’s life, as well as samples of the former President’s writing. One interesting page illustrates the ravaging effects the Presidential post has on aging.

So when stocking a home or classroom library, or searching your local library catalog for books to satisfy the curiosity of young election-followers, I’d urge parents and teachers to stay clear of the newer spun-sugar offerings and go for the real meat and potatoes.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

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What Obama and McCain do have in common September 7, 2008

Filed under: In the News — jbmcqueen @ 11:09 am
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As the media go into overdrive dissecting the political candidates entrenched in the upcoming Presidential election, it makes sense to take a look at the two presidential nominees from a literary standpoint.

Why? Because Barack Obama and John McCain have something fundamental in common other than big plans and ambition. They both embody a literary truism demonstrated in former presidents and politicians from Abraham Lincoln to the Kennedys: the greats read the greats.

The Washington Post recently ran a piece describing the upbringing of Democratic nominee Obama, citing the influence of his mother, anthropologist Stanley Ann Dunham, who passed on to her children a deep appreciation for challenging, classical writers and philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Hegel, Mill and Marx.

As Post education columnist Jay Mathews points out, “She prepared them to appreciate such teaching themselves, excel at demanding colleges and embrace careers — law for Obama, history teaching for his sister — that depended on aggressive thinking, the epitome of what a good president or a good educator does.”

A look at the literary background of Republican nominee McCain reveals a similar exposure to the work of deep thinkers and classical writers. His father and teachers made sure he tackled rigorous works like Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”

Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy, brother of and Attorney General to John F. Kennedy, left behind written testament to his self taught, rich literary nature in Make Gentle the Life of This World: The Vision of Robert F. Kennedy, a collection of journal entries and the literate speeches for which he was known.  In it, we see how familiarity with the Greek classics, Camus, and other literary greats translates into powerful words, no matter what era we live in.

So do the greats make men and women great? In the words of a perhaps not flowery but astute person, “Garbage in, garbage out.” It’s always under debate whether young people should be forced to read and report on “the classics.” (As an English major, of course, I’m with the classics, but I actually liked them.) And most young people need to be able to enjoy the fun stuff along with the brain-bending in order to cultivate a reading habit.

But I don’t think it’s any surprise that thinking people who are exposed to lofty ideas from the youngest of ages include the two formidable men the entire nation is comparing and contrasting to determine our country’s future.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

Visit magicbookshelfonline.com