The Great Little Madison

The Great Little MadisonThe Great Little Madison by Jean Fritz. Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 1989. 160 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 10-14. ISBN: 9780698116214.

This biography is written as if middle grade kids are thinking people. It’s written for someone who wants to know about James Madison and the first 40 years of the United States. The book could be used to write a report, but unlike some biographies for middle grade readers, it could also be used by a student of history who loves to read about the people involved in the founding of the United States.

James Madison was a short man with a small voice who was involved in many of the key decisions facing the country in its first 40 years. He was part of the convention in Virginia that voted to ratify the Declaration of Independence. He took meticulous notes at the Constitutional Convention and played an important part in the proceedings. While the states were deciding whether or not to ratify the new constitution, Madison, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, wrote the Federalist papers. The papers explain the new constitution and why it was important. Madison represented Virginia in the House of Representatives. He was Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State, and he served two terms as president of the United States. Madison lived long enough (85 years) to see Andrew Jackson be elected president.

Freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech were among the rights about which Madison felt strongly.  Furthermore, Madison believed preserving the Union was absolutely critical if the experiment in democracy that is the United States was to survive.

In the early years of the country there were sometimes fierce arguments between the Republicans (similar to today’s Democrats), who believed in “spreading the power democratically among the people” (p. 65) and the Federalists who believed “people of ‘quality’” (p. 65) should have the power. Madison and his lifelong friend Jefferson were Republicans.

Fritz’s style is very straightforward. She packs her paragraphs with information and does so in an effortless way. The book is not compelling, however. In 1989 perhaps middle grade nonfiction books were not compelling. Steve Sheinkin writes nonfiction page turners. Neal Bascomb’s “The Nazi Hunters”  is hard to put down.  When Fritz writes about the war of 1812, which happened when Madison was president, the story becomes a little more compelling, but nothing that comes close to Sheinkin or Bascomb.

I am fascinated by Madison’s influence on the early days of the United States. Many people today speak as if they know the Constitution. Those people would be shocked to read Madison’s actual ideas.

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Kirkus (a starred review)


Rated a Best Book of 1989 by The Horn Book


Africa is My Home: A Child of the Amistad

Africa is My HomeAfrica is My Home: A Child of the Amistad. Written by Monica Edinger. Illustrated by Robert Byrd. Candlewick Press, 2013. 64 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 10 and older. ISBN:  9780763650384.

The character who tells this story has three names. She was named Magulu by her parents in Mendeland (modern day Sierra Leone). At nine years old she was sold into slavery, taken to Cuba where she boarded the Amistad. The Africans on the Amistad ended up in New Haven, Connecticut.  In New Haven she was renamed Margru because the Americans misunderstood her pronunciation of her name. After two years of legal battles, the Africans on the Amistad were freed from jail. Before returning home to Africa, Margru was renamed Sarah Kinson, a name she chose, in a church ceremony.

The voice telling the story seems to be the voice of Sarah Kinson. It’s the voice of an adult or young adult but she tells the story through the eyes of her childhood self. There are times when the voice is poetic. The events she experienced had both legal and political implications, however her focus is not on these implications but on what she was aware of as a child.

Margru was very aware of abolitionists in Connecticut, particularly Lewis Tappan. He arranged for Margru and her friends to be taught to read, a skill she loved. The abolitionists helped free the Africans. They also introduced the Africans to Christianity. Margru found Christianity helped her through the rough times. Once the Africans were freed the abolitionists helped them earn money to pay for their trip home to Africa. Sarah returned to the United States when she was 16 and Lewis Tappan arranged for her to attend Oberlin College in Ohio. After Oberlin, she went home to Africa.

It’s amazing to me that Edinger was able to provide such a solid historical underpinning to the story. Researching the life of one African child on the Amistad cannot have been an easy task. The book is essentially nonfiction. The only fiction is the imagining of Margru’s feelings as a child and imaginings of some of the dialogue.

The illustrations are detailed and colorful. I have never seen such effective illustrations of dreams. Circles intertwine with other circles and inside each is a different image of Africa. It’s as if one image moves into another image the way images move in dreams.

The book never bogs down. It’s very well paced.

I graduated from Oberlin in 1980. Tappan Square is central to the town and the school, yet I never knew who the square was named for until I read this book. Lewis Tappan and his brother were instrumental in founding the school in the 1830s. In the late 1970s Oberlin was still true to the social justice emphasis present at its founding.  I’ve just learned something new about Oberlin and thus something new about an institution that’s been profoundly influential in my life.  I thank Monica Edinger for that knowledge!

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For Those About to Mock
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Randomly Reading
Waking Brain Cells

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The New York Times
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The Brothers Kennedy: John, Robert, Edward

The Brothers KennedyThe Brothers Kennedy: John, Robert, Edward. Written by Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Amy June Bates. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2010. 40 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 4-8. ISBN: 9781416991588.

The Brothers Kennedy captures the magic and tragedy of Joseph Kennedy’s sons. The first part of the book features a chapter each on the childhood and young adulthood of Joe, John, Robert and Edward. Each brother is different, but each has a strong sense of competitiveness, of the importance of public service, of compassion and of fairness.

The second part of the book addresses the hope represented by John and Robert and Edward, and the tragic loss of hope with the deaths of Joe and John and Robert. It also looks at Edward’s the long career in the Senate, carrying forward the vision of the Kennedy’s. John and Robert both work for civil rights for African-Americans. Edward was present when Barack Obama was nominated by the Democratic Party to be its presidential candidate.

The book doesn’t present a complete picture of the Kennedy brothers. There is no mention of Chappaquiddick or of the famous womanizing of the Kennedy men. It doesn’t address the intricacies of John’s policies as president. There’s no need for a complete picture in this book, in fact it would be inappropriate for the target age group. This is a book that presents the magic of the Kennedys to a new generation.

The illustrations are outstanding. My favorite is an illustration of John as he wins the presidency and is inaugurated. All but one of the illustrations contain boys and young men full of energy. Towards the end of the book is an illustration of Edward sitting on the stage as Barack Obama accepts the Democratic presidential nomination. He is old and ill in this illustration, an elder statesman who has lived see what he worked so hard to bring about.

There are extensive notes at the end of the book, as well as a timeline and a list of sources.

I worry that kids in school today don’t have the same feeling about the Kennedys that I do. It’s a feeling that’s hard to put into words, but Kathleen Krull and Amy June Bates capture it in their words and illustrations.

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John F. Kennedy: A Photographic Story of a Life

DD179 DK Bio JFK_PPB.qxdJohn F. Kennedy: A Photographic Story of a Life by Howard S. Kaplan. DK Publishing, 2004. 128 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 10-17. ISBN: 9780756603403.

This book is adequate. It’s full of solid information about Kennedy. He wasn’t healthy, he competed with his older brother throughout their childhood and adolescence, he was smart but not a great student, he was a hero in the second world war when his PT boat was fired on and fell to pieces, he started in the House of Representatives, then moved to the Senate, and finally to the White House. Along the way he married Jacqueline Bouvier and they had two children.

These are all facts. I’m impressed with the amount of information in this 128 page book. I was surprised to find facts I didn’t know. For example, I didn’t realize that Jack Kennedy abstained from voting when the Senate voted to censure Joseph McCarthy.  I wish the author had addressed allegations that Kennedy’s father bought the Chicago vote for Kennedy and thus the presidential race.

The book doesn’t read as if it’s crammed with facts. It’s more like a narrative and less like a textbook.

Kennedy was killed when I was five years old. My parents cried as they watched his funeral. Why? His death was a loss beyond words, because in life he had an inexpressible greatness. I wish the book conveyed Kennedy’s place in the American pantheon.

This book is written almost entirely in the present tense. I found the use of present tense confusing when the author wanted to write about events to come and events that had happened already. The present tense, plus the use of “Jack” instead of “Kennedy” or “President Kennedy” serve to make Kennedy seem like a buddy.

The book is full of black and white and color photographs. Each photograph is accompanied by a short paragraph. In addition, short side paragraphs are scattered throughout the book. I sometimes have trouble with DK books because it’s hard to follow the main text with so many distractions. In this book, the distractions are kept to a minimum.

Shortly after Kennedy was killed, I thought it made sense that just as Jesus was resurrected, so Kennedy would be resurrected. If the book spent more time on Kennedy as a human being instead of focusing on the facts of his life, I suspect a reader of the book wouldn’t be surprised that I expected I might see Kennedy on the subway weeks after his death.

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Lincoln: A Photobiography

LincolnLincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman. Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 1987. 160 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 9-12. ISBN: 9780395518489.

1988 Newbery Medal.

Russell Freedman takes kids seriously. This is not a “nice” biography that gives kids a story about honest Abe. This is a serious attempt to write about Lincoln in all of his complexity.

Freedman shows Lincoln as a human being. Lincoln was sometimes deeply depressed, as was his wife, Mary. He sank into despair after the deaths of his two sons. Lincoln had a self-disparaging sense of humor that he used to put people at ease and to please crowds when he gave speeches. Above all, Lincoln had an interest in and concern for his fellow human beings regardless of the color of their skin. Frederick Douglass is quoted as saying that Lincoln was unique because he never reminded Douglass of the different colors of their skin. Every afternoon Lincoln talked with constituents who lined up to ask the president for help.

Ambition was always a part of Lincoln’s personality. He wanted to learn to read, and then to read widely. He wanted to study the law, and eventually had a successful legal practice. He wanted to win elections, and he did.

Lincoln was not a leader in the cause of abolition. He believed slavery would end naturally. Freedman allows the reader to watch as Lincoln’s attitude toward slavery gradually changes until close to the end of his life he pushes hard for the 13th amendment to the Constitution which outlaws slavery.

Preserving the union was the original purpose of the Civil War. Freedman shows the reader how the view of the purpose of the war changed slowly until at the end of the war it was clear the war was about freeing the slaves.

The day-to-day details of the Civil War were a frustration to Lincoln. It took him several years to find the right generals, but when he finally did the war ended quickly.

The text is full of quotations from Lincoln and others. The quotations are woven into the text so well that the reader is never jolted out of the story by the quotations.

The book contains many pictures. Some are of Lincoln. Some are of political rivals, and generals and soldiers. There are pictures of Lincoln’s wife and his sons. I was particularly struck by a photograph of Lincoln taken on April 10, 1865, just before his death. The photo captures Lincoln’s eyes, rich with intelligence and feeling. Freedman captures the same richness in Lincoln the man.

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Anita Silvey’s Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac
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The Newbery Project
Sunday Cummins Experience Nonfiction

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My Grandma’s the Mayor

My Grandmas the MayorMy Grandma’s the Mayor. Written by Marjorie White Pellegrino. Illustrated by John Lund. Magination Press (part of the American Psychological Association), 2000. 32 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 6-12. ISBN: 9781557986085.

My Grandma’s the Mayor is a nice introduction to what it means to be a Mayor. Annie’s grandmother must first run for mayor. Annie helps by handing out flyers and putting up signs. Once Annie’s grandmother is elected, she becomes responsible for the problems of every person who is unhappy with the town. She needs to listen to those problems and try to find solutions.

My Grandma’s the Mayor is also a wonderful picture of how hard it is for Annie to share her grandmother with the town. Her grandmother no longer has the time she used to have to spend with Annie. Annie misses her grandmother and is jealous of the time the townspeople demand of her grandmother.

Finally, My Grandma’s the Mayor is a great testimonial to helping people. When tragedy strikes right across the street from Annie’s grandmother’s house, Annie notices how her grandmother cares for those who have been traumatized. After watching her grandmother, Annie thinks of a way that she can help. By helping she comes to understand why her grandmother enjoys being Mayor. She understands that helping people makes the helper feel better. She still wishes for more alone time with her grandmother, but she’s also proud of her grandmother.

The text is very straightforward and the illustrations are, according to the back cover of the book, in the “classic American storybook style.”

As I watch volunteers from Habitat for Humanity build a house in back of my house, I realize how this book resonates even with adults. Helping people brings with it a powerful reward.

Hidden Roots

Hidden Roots by Joseph Bruchac. Bowman Books, 2010 (originally published by Scholastic in 2004). 152 pages. Kirkus recommends for ages 9-12. ISBN: 9780557711680.

Hidden Roots is the story of theHidden Roots the coming of identity of Howard Camp, called Sonny by his parents and his uncle. Howard is 11 years old, living in New York State near the Hudson River and the Vermont border in the mid-1950s. Howard knows he is white, just like his parents and his uncle. He knows that Indians live in teepees and fight with bows and arrows.

Howard’s father is physically abusive to his mother and to him. He works at the local mill, which dumps beautifully colored toxic waste into the Hudson. Howard knows he doesn’t want to be like his father. He doesn’t want to be as angry as his father and he doesn’t want to work at the mill.

A more positive influence comes from Uncle Louis. Louis takes Howard and his mother to see a herd of deer on the side of a mountain in Vermont. He shows Howard how to walk among the deer. He takes him to a mountain just before sunrise and they welcome the sun. Howard’s father doesn’t like Louis and doesn’t like Howard spending time with him. After Howard’s father loses a couple of fingers in an accident at the mill, he accepts Louis’s presence and assistance more willingly.

One day, when Howard’s parents are both out, Louis tells Howard the truth about his identity. Louis is an Abenaki Indian from Vermont. His wife was forcibly sterilized as part of a eugenics project in Vermont. She died of sadness and illness not long after she was sterilized. Louis ran away with his daughter, Howard’s mother, to live in New York. He never told anyone he was an Indian. Howard’s mother never told anyone she was an Indian, and Howard’s father never told anyone he was an Indian. They felt it was safer to hide their identities.

The details of the eugenics project in Vermont are chilling. Joseph Bruchac goes into some detail about the program in an author’s note at the end of the book. In a way, it’s presenting all Americans with new knowledge about our identity. We live in a country in which a state could try to wipe out an entire Indian tribe by preventing them from reproducing.

Bruchac has a calm style of writing that makes reading this book a pleasure even though the facts it exposes are so difficult.


Blog Reviews:

American Indians in Children’s Literature
McBook Words
No Vampires Allowed
Yun-A’s blog

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Publisher’s Weekly

Joseph Bruchac’s Author Website