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08 June 2008 OUR WHITE HOUSE: LOOKING IN, LOOKING OUT by created by 108 renowned authors and illustrators, Candlewick Press, September 2008, 242p., ISBN: 978-0-7636-2067-7


"Our house is a very, very, very fine house." -- Graham Nash (who was born in Britain and became an American citizen in 1978)


"This house...I was thinking of it as we walked down this hall, and I was comparing it to some of the great houses of the world that I've been in. This isn't the biggest house. Many, and most, in even smaller countries, are much bigger. This isn't the finest house. Many in Europe, particularly, and in China, Asia, have paintings of great, great value, things that we just don't have here, and probably will never have until we are one thousand years old or older.

"But this is the best house. It's the best house because it has something far more important than numbers of people who serve, far more important than numbers of rooms or how big it is, far more important than numbers of magnificent pieces of art.

"This house has a great heart, and that heart comes from those who serve."

-- Richard Nixon, in his final remarks to the White House staff, August 9, 1974


OUR WHITE HOUSE is a rollicking literary and visual excursion through the history and mythology, the hijinks and tragedies, and the family moments that have accrued over the course of two centuries of presidential life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The National Children's Book and Literary Alliance has brought together the work of 108 well-known, children's book authors and illustrators. In addition to all of the stories and pictures, editors have interspersed some fascinating bits of primary source and historical material.


This is a collection of uber talent. Taking a look through the contributors list, I found sixteen authors who have been recognized by Newbery award committees, a dozen who have been recognized by Caldecott award committees, five National Book Award winners, and others who have won the Jane Addams, the Golden Kite, the CSK, and the Pulitzer Prize.


Now, some might wonder whether all of that award-winner talk means that this is a book akin to high fiber and low calories: it's good for you but not particularly tasty. But that's wrong! Above all, I had a great old time reading OUR WHITE HOUSE, and discovered some really neat stuff.


We learn from such yarns as Richard Peck's "The White House Cow," that up through the middle of the nineteenth century, there were relatively innocent times when one saw absolutely no iron fences, no walls, or security checkpoints around the president's house; no armed dudes with shades and earpieces to be found anywhere. Instead, there were family cows and kitchen gardens and casual, neighborly visits.


From Elizabeth Cody Kimmel's tale, "An Unusual Guest," we learn that Lewis and Clark sent back a prairie dog to Jefferson that briefly lived at what would (in Teddy Roosevelt's time) come to be known officially as the White House.


In just a few pages ("Sneaking into Adams Field"), Michael Winerip has converted me into a major fan of John Quincy Adams. I now want to read more about the OTHER president whose father had previously been president.


In a thousand words taken from the 1865 memoir of James Madison's former slave Paul Jennings, my belief in that the old tale of Dolly Madison being responsible for saving the famous portrait of George Washington has been seriously undermined. Those organizing the book did something very interesting here: They situated the Jennings' memoir excerpt right next to Don Brown's recounting and illustration of the Dolly Madison story. Thus, we are handed a stellar lesson in information literacy and a great opportunity for debate.


And the illustrators! How cool is it to have the most recent winner of the Caldecott Medal joining back up with the author of THE DINOSAURS OF WATERHOUSE HAWKINS to show the story of Thomas Jefferson's spreading crates of mammoth bones (thanks, again, to Lewis and Clark) out on the White House floor? There is a great graphic novel-style look at Herbert Hoover by Matt Phelan, a two-plus-page spread of presidents and their pets by Steven Kellogg, and -- one of my absolute favorites -- the six page "Backstairs at the White House: a More or Less On-The-Spot Sketch Journal" by David Small.


"...There is something fitting about the house of our country's leaders being inhabited by the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, a man who governed during a time of such anguish. If the White House were not haunted by the memory of its past trials, that would be true cause for worry. As for Harry Truman, who was roused from his sleep by Lincoln's anxious knocking and pacing, he was asked whether he himself would ever return as a presidential specter. He said he wouldn't: 'No man in his right mind would want to come here of his own accord.'"

-- "The House Haunts" by M. T. Anderson


From the little-known early-American history to be found in Walter Dean Myers' piece "Slaves Helped Build the White House!," to the amusing recollections from the era in which I grew up -- LBJ's daughter Lynda's "My Room," OUR WHITE HOUSE: LOOKING IN, LOOKING OUT is a lively collection of fact, story, and illustration that one can be page through and read like a magazine, or dive into and enjoy cover to cover.


Richie Partington, MLIS

Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com

Moderator, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/




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