February 13, 2014


A Home for Mr. Emerson.  By Barbara Kerley. Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. Scholastic. $18.99.

Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies. By Cokie Roberts. Illustrated by Diane Goode. Harper. $17.99.

JFK. By Jonah Winter. Illustrated by A.G. Ford. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was a seminal writer, philosopher and deep thinker at a time when the United States was finding itself as a nation, trying to determine what sort of country it would be and how its residents would fit in with each other, with their government and with the world. A leading Transcendentalist, Emerson gathered around himself a wide variety of like-minded people, spreading his influence in numerous ways: for example, Henry David Thoreau’s famed Walden Pond was on Emerson’s land in Concord, Massachusetts; Thoreau lived there after Emerson allowed him to build a cabin. But Barbara Kerley’s A Home for Mr. Emerson, intended for middle-grade readers, contains little of what made Emerson famous among his contemporary thinkers and in later generations – although quotations from his works appear on some of the book’s pages and its front and back inside covers. Kerley tells instead a homey story, indeed a very directly home-y one, about the importance of a firm and stable home to Emerson, how he created one for himself, and what happened after he was forced out of it by a fire in 1872, when he was 69 years old. It was that fire, resulting in his home’s destruction, that sent Emerson abroad, to England, Italy and Egypt, with his daughter, Ellen. Scholars of Emerson’s works are interested in how the travel influenced his thinking, but Kerley is more concerned with how eager he was to return home – and how happily astonished he was, when he did so, to find out that his friends and family had rebuilt and re-furnished his house for him. A sweet story about the importance of hearth and home rather than an exploration of a major philosophical system and one of its proponents, A Home for Mr. Emerson is enlivened by illustrations in which Edwin Fotheringham takes the largely true story into the realm of fairy tale or myth: he shows Emerson flying within the pages of an open book, literally leaping inside his book collection (into the pages of a giant volume), and being carried by birds across the Atlantic as Ellen holds his hand. Although Kerley notes some elements of Emerson’s thinking, as when she comments that he and friends “spoke about literature, theology, self-reliance, and freedom, in evenings of grand discussion,” she is more interested in Emerson the homebody and, by extension, in the importance of home as a place to “center” one’s self and one’s life. A Home for Mr. Emerson is a thoughtful book about an important American thinker – if scarcely an introduction to his thinking.

     Cokie Roberts’ Founding Mothers goes back even further in American history, in fact to a time before the United States existed as an independent nation, to present profiles of 10 important women of the Colonial era and the nation’s early years – plus some history reaching beyond those specific figures. A few of these women are well-known today: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison. The others are probably not, at least not to the young readers at whom the book is targeted: plantation owner Eliza Lucas Pinckney, Deborah Read Franklin (Benjamin Franklin’s wife), independence advocate Mercy Otis Warren, poet and former slave Phyllis Wheatley, Esther DeBerdt Reed (who raised funds for the Continental Army), Sarah Livingston Jay (wife of Continental Congress president John Jay), and Catharine Littlefield Greene (wife of General Nathanael Greene). Roberts is at pains to indicate that even the women profiled because of whose wives they were were not merely those men’s wives: they made important contributions of their own in the early days of the United States. Roberts tries a bit too hard to “prove” the women’s significance, but certainly they are worthy of more than occasional mentions in dryasdust history books, and she does enliven matters with her short biographical sketches. Diane Goode’s impressionistic illustrations add a pleasantly homey feel to the presentations and help compensate for the fact that Roberts sometimes comes across as talking down to her young readers: “The Patriots – men plotting to free the colonies from the British,” she writes at one point; at another, “Women’s private writings – letters and diaries – tell us much more about their lives than anything published for the public. Reading their mail (it’s okay to be nosy – they’ve been dead for a long time!) you learn what women were happy about and worrying about…” But even if Founding Mothers has flaws, it has them in a good cause: showing the importance of women as well as men in Revolutionary days. Readers who find these brief portraits intriguing may well be inspired to learn more about them – and about American history – elsewhere. The list of sources at the back of the book helps, although several of the women in Founding Mothers are omitted from it; still, it is a start, as (in a sense) is the book itself.

     JFK offers more-recent history for even younger readers (ages 4-8). A tribute and a work of hagiography rather than history, Jonah Winter’s book starts when the Dallas-based writer re-creates the scene in that city on the day Kennedy was assassinated there: November 22, 1963. This is a bit of a stretch – Winter was one year old at the time and, as he says, too young to understand what he was seeing; in fact, a one-year-old boy cannot even remember, much less understand, what he has seen. But Winter uses the events of that day to move back farther in time and discuss the Kennedy family, its roots, its commitment to public service, and the way in which the shepherding of the plan to ascend to the presidency was passed to the second Kennedy son after Joe Jr., the oldest, died in World War II. A.G. Ford offers craggy, angular, superhero-like portraits of the Kennedy family members and other figures in the book, accentuating a narrative in which Winter again and again looks only to the positive side of Kennedy and his relatives. For example: “Kennedy’s victory was not just a victory for himself but a victory for words! For intelligence!” And Winter comments that the Kennedy presidency “was the closest America ever came to having royalty,” connecting the “Camelot” designation with a book about King Arthur that Kennedy read as a boy. There is a bit too much mythmaking in this (+++) book to make it a fully satisfying biography even for very young readers: there are no negatives about Kennedy at all, only heroism, and issues involving his scarcely uncontroversial father and his appointment of his brother as atorney general are either glossed over or omitted entirely.  Some people “hated him – because of what he stood for, because of his wealth,” writes Winter, but “even more people loved him – for his intelligence, his courage, his voice.” And this may well be true, but it will surely leave children wondering why, in that case, he was assassinated – a complex story that will be left to parents to try to tell, since Winter never proffers any reason that hatred or anger would have penetrated so deeply against so saintly a man.

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