June 07, 2012


Liberty Lee’s Tail of Independence. By Peter W. Barnes and Cheryl Shaw Barnes. Little Patriot Press. $16.95.

Woodrow for President: A Tail of Voting, Campaigns, and Elections. By Peter W. Barnes and Cheryl Shaw Barnes. Little Patriot Press. $16.95.

Hanging Off Jefferson’s Nose: Growing Up on Mount Rushmore. By Tina Nichols Coury. Illustrated by Sally Wern Comport. Dial. $16.99.

      This is a tremendously important election year in many countries of the world, as governments fall and are reconstituted in debt-ridden Europe, natural-resources-rich Australia, and elsewhere.  But the upcoming U.S. presidential election, which relies on a system quite different from those in other modern democracies, is of special concern not only in the United States but also around the world, given the nation’s enormous international influence.  So this is a particularly good time for children ages 5-8 to learn some basic civics lessons, including how the United States came to be and how it is now governed.  These are the stories that Peter W. Barnes and Cheryl Shaw Barnes tell, with a little help from some amusing and attractively drawn anthropomorphic mice, in these two books, which are punningly designated “tails” rather than “tales” but are solid stories in any case.

     Liberty Lee’s Tail of Independence, set some 50 years after the Declaration of Independence, features the mouse of the title explaining the American Revolution and taking some credit for helping Thomas Jefferson draft the Declaration of Independence: “We worked very hard, all day and all night –/ We wrote by the fire and by candlelight./ As Franklin and Adams checked in, came and went,/ We wrote about ‘truths’ that were self-evident!”  The authors do a surprisingly good job of extracting parts of the Declaration and putting them into modern language – using illustrations to show which provision being explained appears where in the document.  They also offer an excellent two-page discussion of the major battles of the Revolution, using 19 boxes to explain what happened in each and surrounding each box with an outline to show whether the British (red) or colonials (blue) won.  The book concludes with “The Tail End: Resources for Parents and Teachers,” a very fine seven-page section giving more details on early U.S. history in a way that is easily conducive to teaching young children about what really happened, after they are finished enjoying Liberty Lee’s mouse-oriented narration.

      Woodrow for President follows a similar explanatory arc in telling the story of “Woodrow G. Washingtail,” who seems too good to be true: “He helped at the hospital, he helped clean the park,/ He helped walk mouse ladies home safe after dark./ He coached kids in soccer, and Little League, too –/ For mice with no jobs, he found jobs they could do!”  All right, this is a little overstated – a human candidate as perfect as Woodrow could probably run as a combined Democrat/Republican – but the authors try to make the point that sometimes good works in the private sector are rewarded in the public one, as Woodrow’s friends decide that he is such an upstanding individual that he ought to operate in a larger venue.  So Woodrow is elected town council (“unani-mouse-ly!”), then mayor, then state senator, then governor of the whole state.  And then he is urged to run for president, and does.  “To which party does our friend Woodrow belong?/ The ‘Bull Mouse,’ of course, so upright and strong.”  This story is more overdone than the one in Liberty Lee’s Tail of Independence, but Woodrow for President does a good job of explaining what political parties are, why there are different ones, how the primaries and nominating process work, what happens at a national convention, and how the general election campaign proceeds.  This is a lot to cram into a book for the 5-8 age range, so there are inevitably many, many once-over-lightly elements,  but the overall approach is quite fine, and adults reading the book will certainly wish that a human president would say the same thing said at the end of the story by president-elect Woodrow: “‘For tomorrow, I have, when I wake from my sleep,/ Many dreams to fulfill, many promises to keep.’”  This book includes eight “Tail End” pages, the last of which is quite interesting: it is a “Contract to Vote Between America’s Children and Adults,” laid out so both kids and adults can sign a pledge to be involved in public affairs “for responsible citizenship and to the functioning of a free democracy.”  Adults agree to vote in all elections, from local to national, and children agree to keep track of election days and make sure adults do not forget them.  In fact, kids pledge “to remind, urge, coax, exhort, bug, nudge, needle, beseech, entreat, request, demand, goad, implore, induce, incite, beg, bribe, push, ply, or force” adults to do their civic duty.  Not a bad promise at all.  The only thing missing is a means of finding a presidential candidate as upstanding and universally appealing as Woodrow.  That, unfortunately, is a tail more difficult to tell.

      There are no rodents in Tina Nichols Coury’s Hanging Off Jefferson’s Nose, but this is every bit as patriotic a book as those by Peter W. Barnes and Cheryl Shaw Barnes – and a great deal more fascinating in its exploration of some little-known aspects of the creation of one of the United States’ greatest monuments.  Coury here tells the tale, not of Gutzon Borglum, the famed designer and sculptor of Mount Rushmore, but of Gutzon’s son, Lincoln, who continued his father’s work after Gutzon died in March 1941, shortly before his 74th birthday.  Young readers learning citizenship lessons will find this an inspiring book, especially since Coury carefully crafts it as a patriotic tale – omitting, for example, the fact that Gutzon Borglum had earlier accepted a commission to sculpt Stone Mountain in Georgia as a Confederate monument (his work there was destroyed after he himself broke all his models, but the techniques he developed there became the basis of the Mount Rushmore project).  Coury does bring out some fascinating elements of the carving of Mount Rushmore, including the facts that there were originally supposed to be only three presidents shown (Theodore Roosevelt was a late addition) and that Lincoln Borglum really did hang off Jefferson’s nose (or the nose of another sculpted president) to protect himself from lightning during South Dakota thunderstorms.  Thanks to very fine illustrations by Sally Wern Comport, done in acrylics and pastels as well as through digital manipulation, young readers get a strong sense of the changing times from 1920, when Lincoln was eight years old and starting to learn skills from his father, to 1941, when the Mount Rushmore project had made significant progress despite a host of technical and financial challenges.  The more-difficult elements of life with Gutzon, who spent considerable time fundraising and bolstering his own reputation, go unmentioned in favor of showing the close working relationship between father and son – leading up to Lincoln’s assumption of the mantle of head sculptor after Gutzon’s death.  Coury does overstate Lincoln’s contribution to the monument – in fact, Lincoln supervised work on it for only one season, leaving it essentially in the state it was in when his father died.  But in a short book (40 pages) for ages 5-8, the story works well, and certainly young readers who visit or see pictures of Mount Rushmore after reading Hanging Off Jefferson’s Nose will feel they better understand the monument and the hardships involved in its construction.  What they will not know – and this is a curious omission – is that the visitors’ center at Mount Rushmore is named for Lincoln Borglum.  Nor will they find out that Lincoln, like his father, died not long before his 74th birthday (the book incorrectly says he died in 1984 rather than 1986).  Still, young readers will learn much about Mount Rushmore in a personal way through Hanging Off Jefferson’s Nose, and that should make the monumental tribute to four great American presidents more meaningful to them in the midst of the current presidential campaign.

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