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


Looking at Lincoln

Looking at LincolnLooking at Lincoln, written and illustrated by Maira Kalman.  Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin, 2012.  32 pages.  Publisher recommends for ages 5-8.  ISBN: 9780399240393.

The narrator of this book about Abraham Lincoln is fascinated by his face.  She wants to learn as much as she can about Lincoln. She learns the well-known facts such as his poverty as a child, his honesty and the difficulties of his presidency. Whimsy also has a place. She imagines that on the day Lincoln was elected president his wife made him his favorite vanilla cake. She wonders if Lincoln and his wife had nicknames for each other. While Lincoln was thinking deep thoughts about the United States and about democracy, she imagines that he also thought about getting a birthday present for his son.  An illustration of the uniform of one of the first soldiers killed in the Civil War brings out one of the most serious commentaries. There’s also a shockingly serious commentary above the pistol with which Lincoln was killed.

It seems as if the narrator, in her commentaries, is attempting to humanize Lincoln for herself. This is a very difficult task for a textbook to accomplish. This book has text book information, but it also has the commentaries, so Lincoln becomes the narrator’s picture of a vital, living person rather than just “the 16th president.”

The facts of the book are printed in typeface. The narrator’s commentaries are, in a very readable print/cursive combination. Some of the words in the commentaries are brightly colored for emphasis.

The illustrations add color and emotional depth to the book. One of the funnier illustrations shows a mule wearing a hat and looking recalcitrant on the lower right, and two legs flying off the ground in the upper left.  This illustrates Lincoln being kicked in the head by a mule. The illustration of the time of mourning following Lincoln’s death is a two-page spread using dark blue and black and gray and white. But the commentary notes that “a great man is never really gone.” The next page is full of pink cherry blossoms and bright green grass. In the final illustration, the narrator is at the Lincoln Memorial, looking into Lincoln’s eyes, and the colors are pastels.

At the end of the book there are many notes about Lincoln and about the facts in the book.

“Looking at Lincoln” is a beautiful introduction to Lincoln, as well as a conversation starter about Lincoln, about slavery, about the Civil War, about political assassination and about legacy.