February 16, 2017
(+++) HISTORIES, SIMPLIFIED
Time for Kids: Presidents of the United States. Liberty Street. $15.95.
Hidden Figures: Young Readers’ Edition. By Margot Lee Shetterly. Harper. $16.99.
History is a fascinating topic that is too often rendered dull by making it into a recitation of dates and events. It is also an important topic: it is a truism that we cannot know where we are going if we do not know where we have been, and while the statement smacks of cliché, it really does have value. The authors of history-focused books aimed at young readers have in recent years done much more to try to show the human side of history, sometimes through exploring the day-to-day lives of the famous and sometimes by showing how many non-famous people have contributed to events of major significance. Even a brief book that sets out on the simple task of telling a bit about each president of the United States can give the nation’s leaders more humanity and context than such books used to – and that is what Time for Kids: Presidents of the United States tries to do. It does not always succeed – for example, the portrait of George Washington is straightforward and gives little sense of him as a human being. But the book generally does a good job of showing the humanity of the presidents, not only the recent ones (to whom it easier for modern young readers to relate) but also some of those from a much earlier time: Thomas Jefferson, for instance, is described as a “tall man with a face full of freckles [who] was more comfortable writing down his thoughts than speaking in public.” The book does oversimplify, not only in a way made inevitable by the small amount of space devoted to each president but also in the name of a lurking sense of political correctness – again using Jefferson as an example, it notes that he wrote against slavery but “owned as many as 600 slaves in his lifetime,” a statement that unnecessarily denigrates the sincerity of his beliefs by evading issues of economic reality in his era. Still, little bits of interestingly humanizing information show up again and again in these verbal portraits: Franklin Pierce at one point gave up politics to please his wife, who disliked Washington, D.C.; William McKinley “impressed people because he was cheerful, wise, and respectful”; after Warren Harding’s death, his widow “destroyed many of Harding’s personal papers to avoid more gossip.” More-recent presidents get even more personal information and, generally, more space in the book, which includes President Trump (whose victory is said, in an understatement, to have “surprised many experts”). And the book ends with an explanation of the process through which a president is chosen; some specifics on the 2016 campaign; photos taken inside the White House; and a couple of pages on “first ladies” – including the fact that the term itself did not catch on until the time of Lucy Hayes (wife of Rutherford B. Hayes, president from 1877 to 1881). Scarcely an extensive or in-depth study of presidents or the presidency – and not intended as one – Time for Kids: Presidents of the United States offers enough good, solid basics to serve as an introduction to its subject, and enough off-the-beaten-path information to keep the topic from becoming dull.
Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures is one of the history books focused on people whose names are scarcely household words. The new edition for young readers is a fair compression of the original book for adults, whose focus is on African-American women mathematicians who worked on the U.S. space program at a time of pervasive racial discrimination and amid numerous Jim Crow laws. One among very many “untold story” books and books intended to “redress the balance” of American history by focusing specifically on African-Americans’ contributions to it, Hidden Figures – which has already been made into a movie – focuses more on the human elements of the story than on the scientific ones. This may make it easier reading, especially for younger readers, but it leads to a skimming over of scientific matters that really could be fascinating if handled more deftly than Shetterly does. This is less a popular-science book than yet another overcoming-obstacles work, which is fine and admirable and all that but scarcely has the reach that a genuinely penetrating look at the math and science performed by these women could have had. Hidden Figures reads more like an extended, even stretched magazine article than a 200-plus-page book: parts are repetitious, and material that a book author could explore in depth (again, matters of math and science) tend to be passed over quickly. The African-American female number crunchers portrayed here had considerable responsibility for American aeronautical successes from World War II into the space age, yet they contended again and again with discrimination that was so extensive that it will be difficult for contemporary young readers to understand. Their path must have been extraordinarily difficult – yet, curiously, it does not come across that way in the book. Yes, Shetterly asserts repeatedly that this law and that rule caused difficulties, but in her portrayals of the women themselves, readers find such equanimity and such heroic perseverance in the face of tremendous societal pressure that these very human mathematicians come across as being every bit as unflappable and wooden as U.S. presidents usually do in more-traditional history books. Hidden Figures tells a fascinating story that is made less interesting by the way Shetterly tells it: its central characters are brave, accomplished and very smart, but young readers (and, for that matter, older ones reading the original version of the book) are likely to find it difficult to relate to people portrayed as being so close to perfect.