January 08, 2009


Scholastic Encyclopedia of the Presidents and Their Times. By David Rubel. Scholastic. $21.99.

Planet Earth: Baby Penguins. Scholastic. $6.99.

     Scholastic is ahead of its game in the new year, producing a new edition of its encyclopedia of presidents that actually includes Barack Obama, who is not president yet. But this is no rushed-to-print souvenir-style book: it is a very substantial volume with excellent information on every chief executive of the United States to date. The major history is all there – for example, there is detailed information on the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s huge part in it. But there are also anecdotes that, much smaller and less significant in themselves, reveal far more about the nation’s history – making it come alive. For example, Zachary Taylor was supposed to learn about his nomination by letter – common practice at the time. The letter was sent without a stamp – also common practice then, as it forced recipients to pay postage due. But Taylor had told his local post office not to deliver postage-due mail, so he did not learn of his nomination for several weeks – when another letter, postage already paid, finally reached him. Or take the case of James Buchanan, generally regarded as one of the nation’s worst presidents. David Rubel gives him very even-handed treatment, explaining his lawyerly reasoning about slavery (states could decide on it, he argued), his life as the only bachelor president, and the fateful events during his presidency –from the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. More-modern presidents get balanced treatment, too, from John F. Kennedy (the Bay of Pigs as well as the man-on-the-moon goal) to Richard Nixon (opening relations with China as well as the Watergate fiasco). Obama gets a single page with some basic statistics and information on the nation’s current financial crisis. Also included here are complete presidential election results from 1789 through 2008 – fascinating in themselves – and a history of the White House. Well written, filled with solid facts and interesting sidelights, Scholastic Encyclopedia of the Presidents and Their Times should feed the increased hunger for political information that young people seem to be feeling in the wake of Obama’s coming term.

     For something far more placid, far easier to grasp and far more relaxing, young children will greatly enjoy Planet Earth: Baby Penguins, a board book filled with photos of emperor penguin chicks. Those are the fuzzy gray birds whose plumage only vaguely resemble that of their handsome black-and-white parents. The pictures of these babies’ behavior, taken by a variety of photographers, are uniformly excellent, whether the focus is on a single chick waddling along behind its mother, a group of chicks huddling together to stay warm, or a quintet of chicks in which one bird is resting (apparently happily) against another – with the caption saying “this chick has friends to lean on.” There is no overt message-mongering here; the text is simple, straightforward and descriptive of the photos. But as part of the BBC Planet Earth series, Baby Penguins is one element of a very large message indeed: these are some of the wonders of the natural world, and we humans – including the ones young enough to enjoy this book – will increasingly be charged with protecting and preserving these animals and many other elements of the planet we all inhabit together.

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