I like to have strong feelings about a book, either positive or negative, when I review that book. George Washington’s Birthday has been on my shelf for several months. I read it when I first received it and thought “meh.” Today I set out to write a review of the book. I’m still having the “meh” reaction.
The book is about George Washington’s seventh birthday. No one in his family seems to know or care that it’s his birthday. That’s the plot for “Sixteen Candles,” the 1984 John Hughes film. It doesn’t quite fit with a biography of the child who became one of the most skilled leaders in US history.
Perhaps Margaret McNamara wanted kids to be able to see themselves in Washington, and so she played up Washington’s fear that his birthday had been forgotten, assuming this is a near-universal fear among children. First, there’s no indication that Washington actually thought his family would forget his birthday. Second, the logical extension of McNamara’s approach is that if you are afraid your family has forgotten your birthday you too could grow up to be president of the United States. The premise doesn’t hold.
Many of the pages have glimpses of Washington’s future life as well as future myths about Washington’s childhood. Margaret McNamara cleverly uses small boxes to separate fact from myth. Of course there’s the myth of Washington chopping down a cherry tree. There’s also the myth of Washington throwing a rock across the Rappahannock River. Both of these myths are accompanied by a small “myth” box identifying the stories as untrue. The seven-year-old boy is interested in the weather outside, and a small box labeled “fact” explains that Washington was always interested in the weather.
George Washington was a powerful figure in US history. He was a strong and charismatic general, a skilled politician, and the first president of the United States. In this book he is a cute little boy who is afraid everyone has forgotten his birthday. I’d be more excited about the book if by reading it I got a sense of Washington’s greatness.
The wonderfully whimsical illustrations are the only part of the book that moved me from “meh” to “wow.” The illustrations are humorous. They add a sweetness to the book and they bring the little boy to life. It’s worth reading the book just to see the illustrations.