Our White House

Book Links Nov. 2008 (vol. 18, no. 2)

Discover the history, inhabitants, and continuing influence of the “most beloved house in all the land.”

By Angela Leeper

Upper elementary school through high school

Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out. By the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. 2008. 256p. Candlewick, $29.99 (9780763620677). Gr. 5–9.

The U.S. presidential election is often called “the run for the White House,” as if one individual can claim this national landmark and all its history.
Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out by the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance allows readers to explore, as David McCullough describes in the introduction, “the most important, the most famous, the most historic, the most beloved house in all the land.” Created by more than 100 children’s authors and illustrators, this book presents the history of the White House, its inhabitants, and its continuing influence in a variety of essays, literary and historical excerpts, short stories, creative nonfiction, and poems, as well as illustrations that depict its drama, its beauty, and its residents’ feats and foibles.

Although the entries are arranged chronologically, this is not a book to be read in a linear fashion or in one sitting. Individual entries or clusters of entries may be selected to fit a lesson or one’s personal interest and then used as a springboard to lengthier books on the same subject. This annotated bibliography suggests entries from this impressive tome and additional titles that may be used to expand on the topics.

White House Overview

Whether collecting dinosaur bones in the East Room, as Barbara Kerley describes in the fascinating biographical sketch, “Jefferson’s Monstrous Bones,” or creating the Forest Service, as Jean Craighead George explains in her essay, “Executive Order for Nature,” presidents bring various skills to the White House. Other entries, as well as the informational and picture-book titles below, present an overview of the presidents’ personalities and duties in the White House.

Ghosts of the White House. By Cheryl Harness. 1998. 48p. Aladdin, paper, $7.99 (9780689848926).

Gr. 2–5. On a class visit to the White House, Sara receives a private tour when the ghost of George Washington steps out of a portrait. Thomas Jefferson, Grover Cleveland, and other former presidents also serve as ghostly tour guides, recounting interesting tidbits of their time in office. Brief biographies and additional information, including a time line and bibliography, frame the detailed watercolor and colored-pencil illustrations.

So You Want to Be President? By Judith St. George. Illus. by David Small. 2000; updated 2004. 56p. Philomel, $17.99 (9780399243172); paper, $9.99 (9780399251528).

Gr. 3–5. Using a playful, conversational tone and numerous anecdotes, St. George describes the benefits (e.g., living in the White House) and drawbacks (“lots of homework”) of being the president of the United States, as well as some helpful hints on achieving the position (“people are crazy about log-cabin presidents”). Small’s Caldecott Medal–winning caricatures highlight the presidents’ personalities and claims to fame. A briefly annotated list of presidents and a bibliography are appended.

White House Q&A. By Denise Rinaldo. 2008. 48p. Collins, $16.99 (9780060899660); paper, $7.99 (9780060899653).

Gr. 3–5. Complemented by archival photographs and artwork and links to Smithsonian Web resources, guided questions and answers introduce the White House and its history, as well as information on the First Family’s living quarters, White House staff, state dinners, and holidays. Concluding segments include advice on writing to the White House, an interview with a White House curator, a glossary, and suggested readings. Jennifer Silate’s
The White House (Rosen/PowerKids, 2006) offers further information for this age group.

Building (and Rebuilding) the White House

It was a labor of both love and strength to build the White House and then repair it after the British burned it during the War of 1812. Entries such as Walter Dean Myers’ first-person essay, “Slaves Helped Build the White House!” and Susan Cooper’s fictional letter from a British solider, “The Burning of the White House,” as well as the informational and picture-book titles below, reveal the White House’s construction and transformations.

Dolley Madison Saves George Washington. By Don Brown. 2007. 32p. Houghton, $16 (9780618411993).

Gr. 1–3. Accompanied by lively watercolor and digitally rendered illustrations that display Madison’s dauntless spirit, this picture-book biography recounts how the “onetime farm girl” became “the capital’s leading hostess.” It also shows that behind the glamour was a First Lady who resolved to protect Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington before the British seized the White House in 1814. Brown offers more information about Madison and Stuart in concluding notes. A bibliography is also appended.

The White House. By Joanne Mattern. 2006. 48p. Thomson Gale/Blackbirch, $24.95 (9781410305619).

Gr. 4–7. This Building World Landmarks title focuses on the construction of the White House, including its design and the slaves and free laborers who helped build it, as well as its rebuilding and renovations throughout various presidencies. Numerous maps and archival reproductions and photographs depict various views of the building. Back matter includes a chronology, a glossary, and lists of books and Web sites. Anne Hempstead’s
The White House (Heinemann, 2006) covers similar information.

First Ladies

Jennifer Armstrong’s essay, “Mrs. Cleveland, White House Bride”; Anita Silvey’s biographical sketch of Jackie Kennedy, “A White Mouse in the White House”; and John Y. Cole’s essay, “Mrs. Bush Inspires a National Book Festival” prove how influential First Ladies can be, as do the informational books below.

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: The Unlikely Friendship of Elizabeth Keckley and Mary Todd Lincoln. By Lynda Jones. January 2009. 80p. National Geographic, $18.95 (9781426303777).

Gr. 5–8. Elizabeth Keckley’s path from slave to free and prominent dressmaker for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln is recounted in this engaging narrative. Using dialogue from Keckley’s own autobiography, the author gives an honest account of slavery, Keckley and Lincoln’s unusual friendship, and dramatic events that eventually separated the two ambitious women. Archival photographs and artwork, an author’s note, and a bibliography add further interest.

Our Country’s First Ladies. By Ann Bausum. 2007. 128p. National Geographic, $19.95 (9781426300066).

Gr. 4–8. Organized by time periods and highlighting major accomplishments by women, this title features interesting profiles of every First Lady. Full-page portraits, photographs, and fact boxes accompany each brief biography, while additional facts, a landmark map, and a list of resources round out the text. Bausum’s
Our Country’s Presidents (National Geographic, 2005) is a companion title.

What Was Cooking in Dolley Madison’s White House? By Tanya Larkin. 2001. 24p. Rosen/PowerKids, $21.25 (9780823956081).

Gr. 3–5. This brief Cooking throughout American History biography focuses on Dolley Madison’s life and social activities in the White House. Historical reproductions and simple recipes of commonly served White House dishes are interspersed throughout. Other titles in this series focus on First Ladies Abigail Adams, Edith Roosevelt, Julia Grant, and Mary Todd Lincoln.

Family Life

Several of the book’s entries recall the host of children who have lived in the White House, including Albert Marrin’s essay, “Storming Down the Stairs,” about the antics of Teddy Roosevelt’s children and their father’s love for them, and Lynda Johnson Robb’s “My Room,” a surprising first-person account of some of the individuals—alive and dead—who also occupied her White House bedroom. Below are more informational titles, picture books, and fiction about the White House’s youngest inhabitants, their families, and pets.

First Daughter: White House Rules. By Mitali Perkins. 2008. 224p. Dutton, $16.99 (9780525479512).

Gr. 7–9. Sameera “Sparrow” Righton, the adopted Pakistani daughter of the newly elected president, finds both pluses and minuses in being the first daughter, and she regularly posts her insights on her popular blog, giving readers an insider’s view of life in the White House and the pressures and pitfalls of celebrity. For a slice of life from the election trail, see the prequel,
First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover (Dutton, 2007).

First Dog Fala. By Elizabeth Van Steenwyk. Illus. by Michael G. Montgomery. 2008. 32p. Peachtree, $16.95 (9781561454112).

Preschool–Gr. 3. Through the life of Fala, Franklin Roosevelt’s black Scottish terrier, children get a glimpse into life at the White House during the five years Fala lived there. The narrative alternates between Fala’s antics and the role he played in FDR’s life. A two-sentence afterword with a photo of the statue of FDR and Fala in Washington completes the book.

First Kids: The True Stories of All the Presidents’ Children. By Noah McCullough. 2008. 192p. Scholastic, paper, $7.99 (9780545033695).

Gr. 4–7. Rather than concentrating on the more famous children of presidents, this book presents brief profiles of each president and his children. Black-and-white archival photos and “Fast Facts” accompany each family’s profile, while “First Kids Who Married in the White House” and other interesting lists of facts are interspersed throughout the conversational text. Younger children will enjoy
First Kids by Gibbs Davis (Random, 2004), part of the Step into Reading series.

If the Walls Could Talk: Family Life at the White House. By Jane O’Connor. Illus. by Gary Hovland. 2004. 48p. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, $16.95 (9780689868634).

Gr. 3–6. From Union troops camped out in the East Room to Jackie Kennedy’s televised tour, this picture book uses short anecdotes, quotes, tongue-in-cheek humor, and caricatured illustrations to reveal both the structural changes and personality each First Family brought to the White House. Additional features include a map, a bibliography, and trivia.

Mr. Lincoln’s Boys: Being the Mostly True Adventures of Abraham Lincoln’s Trouble-Making Sons, Tad and Willie. By Staton Rabin. Illus. by Bagram Ibatoulline. 2008. 40p. Viking, $16.99 (9780670061693).

K–Gr. 3. Loosely based on a true White House event and adorned with detailed paintings, this tribute to the Lincoln family recalls the time young Tad and Willie burst into the presidential office to ask for a pardon for their toy soldier Jack. Touched by his sons’ playfulness, Lincoln agrees to the task, wishing he could save the lives of all good men caught up in the Civil War. An author’s note, a descriptive “cast of characters,” and a ­bibliography provide background information.

Teddy Roosevelt and the Treasure of Ursa Major. By Ronald Kidd. Illus. by Ard Hoyt. 2008. 128p. Aladdin, paper, $10.99 (9781416952794).

Gr. 2–4. The first title in a series from the Kennedy Center titled Capital Kids, this historical caper begins when three of Theodore Roosevelt’s rambunctious children discover mysterious clues tucked into a copy of
Treasure Island. The text follows the children as they explore the many rooms of the White House in search of hidden treasure, treating readers to bits of First Family history and lore along the way.

Wackiest White House Pets. By Gibbs Davis. Illus. by David A. Johnson. 2004. 48p. Scholastic, $16.95 (9780439443739).

Gr. 2–4. From Thomas Jefferson’s two grizzly bear cubs to George Herbert Walker Bush’s published pooch, Millie, this title uses short, joke-filled tales and amusing, muted watercolors to offer a glimpse into the menagerie of animals that have occupied the White House. A chronological list of the presidents’ nicknames, claims to fame, and pets, as well as a bibliography, concludes the text.

What to Do about Alice? How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy! By Barbara Kerley. Illus. by Edwin Fotheringham. 2008. 48p. Scholastic, $16.99 (9780439922319).

Gr. 2–4. This entertaining picture-book biography matches the energy of the thrill-seeking, media-grabbing Alice Roosevelt. Digitally created, retro-looking illustrations, filled with Alice’s favorite blue-gray color, capture the young woman’s joie de vivre and her father’s exasperation. An appended author’s note provides more details on Alice and her relationship with her family.

White House Autumn. By Ellen Emerson White. 2008. 240p. Feiwel and Friends, paper, $9.99 (9780312374891).

Gr. 7–10. Meg Powers’ mother is president of the United States, and despite having lived in the White House for 10 months, 17-year-old Meg is still adjusting to life under the microscope. Part of the President’s Daughter series, the first incarnation of this title was published in 1985, but White has now updated her text, ensuring that the best parts, particularly the family interactions and the glimpses of life in the White House, remain. The other titles in this updated series are
The President’s Daughter (Feiwel, 2008),
Long Live the Queen (Feiwel, 2008), and
Long May She Reign (Feiwel, 2007).

White House Stories

The White House is rich fodder for real and imagined stories, as seen in Kathleen Krull’s historical sketch, “From the Walls of the White House,” about James Monroe’s unsuccessful meeting with American Indians, and Marguerite W. Davol’s “Andy and Me,” a short story about Andrew Jackson’s rise to president. The picture book below tells a true story about a prized dairy product’s journey to White House.

A Big Cheese for the White House: The True Tale of a Tremendous Cheddar. By Candace Fleming. Illus. by S. D. Schindler. 2004. 32p. Farrar, paper, $6.95 (9780374406271).

K–Gr. 3. Cheshire, Massachusetts, is known for its mouthwatering cheese, but when its residents hear that Thomas Jefferson is serving curds from rival Norton, Connecticut, Elder John Leland proposes that they make a “whopping big cheddar” and deliver it to the president. Droll pen-and-­watercolor illustrations depict this slightly fictionalized account of how the town pooled 934 cows and other resources to produce a 1,235-pound cheese that was housed in the White House’s East Room.

Angela Leeper is an educational consultant and freelance writer in Wake Forest, North Carolina.