June 01, 2006


My Senator and Me: A Dog’s-Eye View of Washington, D.C. By Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Illustrated by David Small. Scholastic. $16.99.

Up before Daybreak: Cotton and People in America. By Deborah Hopkinson. Scholastic. $18.99.

     It often helps to dress up factual books with amusing “framing stories” to make the information more interesting to young readers.  That’s the approach of My Senator and Me, which is ostensibly narrated by one of Senator Edward Kennedy’s two Portuguese water dogs, Splash (full name: Champion Amigo’s Seventh Wave – a bit hoity-toity for a “reach out to everyone” book).  Splash, it seems, helps the senator get through the day, accompanying him to work and playing with him so he gets some relaxation – and even, in one funny scene, barking at just the right time, so committee members who are arguing about two versions of a bill relax, forget their tension and come up with a suitable compromise.  David Small’s illustrations make everyone and everything in Washington look endearing – a bit far from reality, but this is, after all, a book for young readers.  Small shows the inside of Kennedy’s office, the underground train that runs from the Senate office building to the Capitol, and numerous sights of Washington: White House, Lincoln Memorial, Kennedy Center and more.  Notably absent are the extensive and intrusive security measures that have turned these once-beautiful buildings and memorials into fortresses – but, again, this is a book for young readers.  Kennedy himself, looking trimmer in these illustrations than in real life (you can compare Small’s pictures with the photo on the back cover), is of course the hero of the narrative, as he pushes successfully for an education bill.  The most endearing scenes show Kennedy and Splash playing together, but the meat of the book is in the text, explaining how daily legislative work is done.  My Senator and Me is an enjoyable story with some genuinely useful underpinnings.  Parents, whatever their political leanings, will here find Kennedy and Splash to be pleasant, intelligent guides to the lawmaking process.

     A less varnished version of the truth is Up before Daybreak, a fascinating study of “king cotton” and the people who planted, picked, spun and wove it during the 19th century and well into the 20th.  Parents expecting this to be a book about slavery will be surprised to find how equally balanced the poverty of cotton production was.  From the cover, which pictures one white child and one black one working in two parts of the cotton-growing-and-processing system, through the abundant illustrations inside this very well-written book, Deborah Hopkinson shows that cotton was a demanding master of whites and blacks alike.  The Civil War and its aftermath are only part of the story – a part in which readers will learn some unexpected things: “sharecropping,” for example, literally meant sharing one’s (usually meager) crops with the owner of the land on which they were grown.  Adults will learn, too: the expression “fair to middling,” still sometimes used today, originated in the cotton business, where “middling” was the basic grade and “fair” the best of a total of 13 grades.  The importance of cotton in the 19th century, the people who planted and harvested it, the way it was graded, sold and eventually turned into products, are all here and all carefully explained.  The eventual downfall of this onetime king, as mill towns began to shut down in both northern and southern textile centers in the 20th century, is also well explained – along with the human cost (including to children) of the changing economic scene.  As an introduction to and overview of what cotton once meant, compared with what it means today, Up before Daybreak is a fascinating, often sobering story of a crop that was key to the development of the United States.

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