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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Professional Reviews:

Kirkus (a starred review)


Rated a Best Book of 1989 by The Horn Book


Worst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the True Story of an American Feud

Worst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the True Story of an American Feud by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain.  Illustrated by Larry Day.  Dutton Children’s Books, 2011.  32 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 6-8.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were the best of friends while creating the Declaration of Independence and working towards independence from Britain. They were both ambassadors to European countries after the Revolutionary war, and in these roles they were also best of friends. However, when determining what kind of government the United States of America should have, they disagreed. They didn’t disagree in a friendly way; they talked about each other behind each other’s backs. They chose not to have anything to do with each other. Much later, after Adam’s and then Jefferson had been President, they each went home to read and be with their families. During this time, they once again became friends, writing many, many letters back and forth.

In “Worst of Friends” The story of Adams and Jefferson is told as a story almost every child has experienced. Who hasn’t been so angry with a friend that he or she has wanted to do the equivalent of jumping on his wig in frustration.  It makes two great men seem human. It also teaches a lesson about friendship: that when a best friendship appears to be lost, it may return again.

“Worst of Friends” also gives us an idea of what it’s like to have a political friendship.  When the two friends agree on politics, the friendship can be very close. When they disagree, sometimes the friendship has to cool down. But that doesn’t mean that ultimately the two political friends don’t have a great deal of respect for each other.

The illustrations in this book are lighthearted and funny. They augment the text, and they do so effortlessly.

In the front of the book there’s an excellent selected bibliography for adult readers.

“Worst of Friends” is a wonderful view of a friendship just like any child would have, except that this was a friendship between two of the most important people who started our country. It’s also a great example of how you can be friends, and sometimes can’t be friends, when politics are involved.