January 05, 2017
(++++) TRANSITION TIME
Scholastic Book of Presidents. By George Sullivan. Scholastic. $6.99.
Presidential inauguration years such as 2017 inevitably result in publication of innumerable books about presidents and politics. Despite the unusually high levels of angst and argument during the 2016 presidential campaign, the United States has every reason to expect a smooth transition of power between people who disagree with each other extremely strongly – one of the salient features of American democracy, and one that is quite rare in the world. Telling this to kids is an excellent idea, no matter what one’s personal politics happen to be. And showing them something about previous presidents, in an age-appropriate way, is an excellent idea as well. That is just what George Sullivan does in Scholastic Book of Presidents.
This is a once-over-lightly book, to be sure, but it is a well-organized and generally thoughtful one that contains some very interesting information and presents its data in accessible form. For example, Sullivan notes that “the remarkable Thomas Jefferson” was not only devoted to public service but also “a successful lawyer, farmer, architect, musician, and inventor” – and spoke six languages, including Latin and Greek. James Monroe, who crossed the Delaware with George Washington and studied law with Jefferson, was shot in the shoulder during the Revolution and carried the bullet embedded there for the rest of his life. John Tyler was a president without a party: he was a Whig, but opposed so many Whig policies that the party threw him out and his entire Cabinet resigned. And Grover Cleveland, the only president elected to two non-consecutive terms, was also the only president who had once had the job of public executioner.
Information like this helps these people of a much earlier time come across as human beings, not mere figureheads. Sullivan also includes important events that occurred during each presidency – plus amusing trivia, such as the fact that more presidential birthdays have occurred in October than in any other month (six). Young readers will also learn here about presidential families: two fathers and sons who became president (John Adams and John Quincy Adams; George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush), and a grandfather and grandson (William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison). They will learn about some controversies associated with various presidents, too, although Sullivan’s selection of which ones to highlight is sometimes questionable. For example, despite the brief nature of all the presidential portraits, he goes on at some length about the demand by a small student faction that Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from the Princeton school named in his honor because of “charges that the 28th president was a racist who supported segregation in government workplaces.” Giving that much publicity to an extremist rant is at best unseemly. And some comments by Sullivan are outdated, such as his remark that since the time of Rutherford B. Hayes, “the Southern states have typically voted as the ‘Solid South’” – which was true for a time but is now, at best, arguable.
Despite its flaws, though, Scholastic Book of Presidents is by and large a useful, informative introduction to the American presidency and the people who have held the office since the nation’s founding. It is heavily weighted toward the most-recent presidents, the ones with whom young readers are most likely to be or become familiar: even Abraham Lincoln gets only five pages here, but Bill Clinton gets six, George W. Bush gets eight, and Barack Obama gets 10. And there are nine pages introducing Donald Trump, the president who is likely to have a significant effect on the lives of this book’s young readers during the next several years – whether four or eight. Scholastic Book of Presidents is not exactly a “warts and all” report on U.S. presidents, nor should it be, given its intended young audience. Neither is it a jingoistic celebration in which everyone who ever held the office is automatically held in the highest esteem. It strikes a reasonable middle ground, reporting things that presidents have done well, things that they have done poorly, and things that simply happened for good or ill during their terms of office. Indeed, as a basic introduction to the American presidency, it is far more reasonable and balanced than are many of the campaigns through which people attain the nation’s highest office.