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Teaming up to give kids a special tour of the White House

October 05, 2008|By KAREN MACPHERSON

Let's just say it flat-out: "Our White House" (Candlewick Press, $29.99) is a stunning gathering of children's-book stars, all with a single goal of illuminating a national treasure for young readers.

In this new book, more than 100 of the best and brightest of children's-book creators offer their words and artwork as a way of demonstrating to children that American history indeed can be both interesting and entertaining.

Consider the "presidential pet show" created by author/illustrator Steven Kellogg, in which readers are treated to a cartoonish parade of White House animals, from George Washington's hounds (who had names like Sweet Lips, Tipsy, Tipler and Drunkard) to President George W. Bush's dog Barney.

Or check out Newbery Medalist Katherine Paterson's paean to the White House press corps in which she notes that it's not surprising that presidents and reporters don't always get along, adding: "It is hard for any of us to like someone who is always sticking his nose into our business and then broadcasting it to the neighbors."

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Artist Bob Kolar offers a presidential game board; artist Matt Phelan offers a biting satire, done graphic-novel-style, of President Herbert Hoover's one term in the White House; and four accomplished children's-book illustrators offer their interpretations of President Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms."

Then there's the ditty composed by Jon Scieszka, the always-mischievous author who is the nation's first National Ambassador for Young People's Literature:

"White House, O White House, place of great fame,

"Don't you think it's a bit of a shame

"That for this grand residence,

"Home of our presidents,

"That's the best we could do for a name?"

That's just a tiny fraction of what readers will find in "Our White House," a coffee-table-size book with unusual intellectual and artistic heft. With each piece of text just three pages or less in length, it's perfect for reading aloud or just dipping into as time permits. In addition, there is a companion Web site, www.ourwhitehouse.org, which includes many other resources on the White House and American history.

"Our White House" is the brainchild of Mary Brigid Barrett, a children's-book author and illustrator, who founded and now directs a nonprofit organization called the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance. Nearly a decade ago, Barrett was casting about for a way to generate revenue for the alliance. Barrett, a lifelong history buff, eventually settled upon the idea of publishing a book for children focused on the White House.

Over the next few years, Barrett asked the prominent children's-book authors and illustrators who serve on the alliance's board to contribute a piece of art or some text for the book. Other children's-book creators were drawn into the project and slowly the book began to take shape.

Barrett determined that the book would be arranged chronologically, and would include both fiction and nonfiction - essays, poetry, short stories - as well as lots of artwork. For example, there's a piece from Charles Dickens' "American Notes" and a poem by Walt Whitman, as well as Robert F. Kennedy's remarks on the assassination of Martin Luther King and a small section of the 9/11 Commission report.

Still, "Our White House" is, first and foremost, a showcase for some of today's top children's-book creators.

In fact, the list of contributors is a bit breathtaking. It includes Newbery Medal winners, Caldecott Medal winners, MacArthur "genius" fellows, National Book Award winners and, of course, the first National Ambassador for Young People's Literature.

Barrett said recently that contributors basically donated "double" their time.

"They had to do research as well as the writing or artwork," Barrett told a meeting of the Children's Book Guild of Washington.

At the same meeting, Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of the late President Lyndon Johnson, noted that even she learned something about the White House from the book, "and I thought I knew everything there was to know about it."

Robb contributed a humorous essay to the book about her room in the White House, right over the main White House entrance, where everyone from tourists to heads of state came and went. It was noisy, but Robb's biggest disappointment was discovering that no one important had lived there. Still, a couple of people - President Abraham Lincoln's son Willie and President Harry Truman's mother-in-law - had died there.

"That was the last straw," Robb writes. "My curiosity had uncovered information that was better left swept under the rug, no matter who had stood on it before."

All in all, "Our White House" is a book that magnificently captures the drama of one of our most enduring national institutions.

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