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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Rated a Best Book of 1989 by The Horn Book


Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution

Image Shh!  We’re Writing the Constitution, by Jean Fritz.  Illustrated by Tomie dePaola.  G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1987. 64 pages.  Publisher recommends for ages 7-11.

This is the story of how we became Americans. It’s the story of how a loose federation of states transformed itself into a nation.  Jean Fritz tells the story of the Grand Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 at which the Constitution of the United States was written. She describes the issues that had to be agreed upon, such as how the states should be represented and how to create a system of checks and balances that made it as unlikely as possible that tyranny should enter into the government. She also includes human interest items, for example that Benjamin Franklin arrived at the Convention in a Chinese sedan chair carried by four prisoners because he found carriages too painful.  Tomie de Paola does a nice job of illustrating Franklin’s arrival and Washington’s Valley Forge face and how the delegates looked as they were being attacked by huge flies.

This book could easily be used as research material for writing a short paper. It’s also a story that could be read in a classroom studying the Constitution or the history of the Revolutionary generation. It includes several notes at the back. One of the notes defines words “nation” and “federal.” It might have been better to include this note as part of the text.

Following the notes, the entire Constitution is included, but not the Bill of Rights or any of the other Amendments. Fritz does address the Bill of Rights in the book so it might have made sense to include it with the Constitution, but the book is really about the Constitution itself so there is also a good argument for leaving out the Bill of Rights at the end.

Fritz’s tone is casual and slightly humorous.  It’s not at all condescending or preachy. She doesn’t spend time on the magnitude of what was being done in writing the Constitution.  At the very end she describes the awe with which the Grand Convention viewed the document once it was printed on parchment, but through most of it she’s much more focused on the process of writing the Constitution rather than that such a document had never before been written in the history of the world.