August 23, 2012


First Mothers. By Beverly Gherman. Illustrated by Julie Downing. Clarion. $17.99.

A Song for My Sister. By Lesley Simpson. Illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss. Random House. $16.99.

      The cleverest and most unusual book for young people to have come out of the current silly season in the American election process so far, First Mothers takes an angle on the presidency that is genuinely new, highly interesting and will be as intriguing for adults as for the young readers for whom Beverly Gherman wrote the book.  This is the story of the mothers of presidents, from Mary Ball Washington to Stanley Ann Dunham (mother of Barack Obama).  A few of these women are well-known to history, such as Abigail Smith Adams (mother of John Quincy Adams) and Nancy Hanks Lincoln (mother of Abraham Lincoln, the only president with two mothers in this book – the other being his stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln, who “had a wonderful sense of humor” and laughed for an hour at one of Abe’s pranks).  These are fascinating short biographies, including each woman’s birth and death dates, the birth dates of their presidential sons, and imagined comments by some of the women upon others.  Julie Downing’s illustrations get the period costumes right and do a good job with facial features when those are known.  The most amusing pictures show Maria Van Buren, Elizabeth Bassett Harrison, Mary Armistead Tyler and Jane Knox Polk in similar frames, looking very different, doing different things and commenting to and about each other.  The tales of these mothers encapsulate and personalize American history in a way that the better-known tales of the presidents themselves never quite do.  Betty Hutchinson Jackson, for example, got her son, Andrew, released from British captivity and then spent eight months nursing him back to health – then cared for other prisoners, caught cholera from one of them, and died.  Mittie Bulloch Roosevelt, mother of Theodore, had brothers who fought for the South in the Civil War and sent them care packages – but her husband supported the North.  Martha Young Truman, Harry’s mother, was a crack shot.  No one knows the birth date or death date of Elizabeth Jones Monroe, James’ mother.  Rebekah Baines Johnson taught her son, Lyndon, the alphabet when he was two, and made him recite poetry when he was three.  Anna Kendrick Pierce, mother of Franklin, deliberately shocked her Puritan neighbors by wearing bright colors and skirts that showed her ankles.  These are wonderful stories about women whose lives were in many (but not all) ways typical of their times – and whose varied roles in raising the men who would become United States Presidents are fascinating to discover.

      The family is a modern and more ordinary one in A Song for My Sister, but this book too is filled with charm.  Lesley Simpson’s story is a simple one about a Jewish family with a new baby that just will not stop crying – much to the annoyance of her almost-seven-year-old sister, Mira, who narrates the tale.  The baby has no name, since Jewish tradition assigns one on the eighth day after birth.  The story revolves around  the naming and around Mira’s attempts to get the baby to stop crying – or at least to get herself away from the incessant noise: “I slept in the tree house. I put underwear in my ears.”  Mira suggests using the baby as a siren on a police car, or maybe naming her Thunder, and by the time of the naming ceremony, all family members – and the friends invited as witnesses – are pretty much at wits’ end as the baby screams incessantly.  Until…well, look at the book title!  When Mira’s turn at the ceremony arrives, she decides to sing to the baby, and lo and behold, the little one stops crying and gurgles happily along with the music, as all the people (and the family dog, Klezmer) look on with joy and, one assumes, considerable relief.  And so the baby is named Shira, which means “song” and which rhymes with Mira, and the two girls bond, agreeing that they will “always sing duets.  Sister songs.”  This is a simple story of a tradition that many readers may find unfamiliar, but the family’s warmth – nicely communicated both through Simpson’s writing and by Tatjana Mai-Wyss’ attractive illustrations – comes through clearly no matter what a reader’s family beliefs may be.

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