Book Beat

February Favorites: Presidents and Black History

by Frank Lipsius

If Barak Obama has his way, there will be a new connection next year between Presidents’ Day and African American History Month, apart from their both being in February. For now, we have to settle for books focusing on these subjects being an either-or proposition.

Books on Presidents
The younger the audience, the more likely the presidential book will be about one of those luminaries who grace our currency, like George Washington For Kids: His Life and Times With 21 Activities by Brandon Marie Miller (Chicago Review, $14.95), Abraham Lincoln, in the same series by Janis Herbert, and Thomas Jefferson: A Picture Book Biography (Scholastic, $5.99) by James Cross Giblin.

What activities do these books suggest that are appropriate for biographies of the presidents? Well, they do come up with some good ones, like finding the names or images of the presidents in everyday life, making a paper quilt of images of slavery or playing Follow Me, a game Lincoln played with his son Todd. It gives a human face to the president and a sense of history, knowing that Lincoln and his son played it walking from the White House to the War Department and back.

These activity books are appropriate for students in the upper reaches of the “9 or up” category because the text and illustrations cover each president’s era, with developments such as Morse code that give a lively and informed picture of the man, his presidency and the context in which he worked. Giblin’s biography of Jefferson features colorful illustrations by Michael Dooling that portray the president as physically active and a shaper of the American landscape, both as architect of Monticello and purchaser of Louisiana.

African American Figures
The African American history books have the opportunity to be fresher because even well known figures have less written about them than Washington or Lincoln. Tonya Bolden’s M.L.K.: Journey of a King (Abrams, $19.95) contains some harrowing photos of the era that Martin Luther King, Jr., entered as a passionate advocate and ended as a martyr. Its portrait of the 1950s and 60s is recognizable to older parents and instructive to students.

Onward: A Photobiography of African- American Polar Explorer Matthew Henson (National Geographic, $17.95) rectifies the historical record by recounting the exploits of the Arctic explorer who accompanied Robert Peary on his quest for the North Pole and acted as interpreter with the native Inuit, whom Henson befriended and found indispensable for his and Peary’s exploits.
Elizabeth McLeod’s George Washington Carver: An Innovative Life (Kids Can, $14.95) introduces 8-to-12 year-olds to the opportunities for innovation and scientific progress available even in the 19th century rural South. Carver, the son of slaves, invented more than 300 products for peanuts, including ice cream, shampoo and gasoline.

Intriguing Combinations
A wide range of kids’ history books illuminate aspects of America’s past, including presidents and prominent African Americans. Laban Carrick Hill’s America Dreaming: How Youth Changed America in the ‘60s (Little Brown, $19.99) takes on the recent past. With its rainbow-hued cover featuring drawings of a peace-signed Volkswagen and stylized John Lennon, the book can help explain parents’ or even grandparents’ younger days to today’s kids. Even if the book inflates the political significance of the 60s revolution, at least it did celebrate youth for the benefit of all future youth. The era and this book will resonate in every family and should bring plenty to share, enjoy — and explain.
The American Story: 100 True Tales from American History by Jennifer Armstrong with illustrations by Roger Roth (Knopf, $34.94) provides lively tales from colonial times to the present that illuminate less-well-known aspects of Americana.

Lynne Cheney’s A Time of Freedom (Simon & Schuster, $8.99) runs through American history almost year-by-year with oddball facts and quotes as counterpoints to major events, an effective way to combine history, anecdote and the uniqueness of this country’s story. America’s future will, no doubt, continue to provide fodder for histories and celebrations for many Februaries to come.

Frank Lipsius is a contributing writer to MetroKids.