Monday, May 28, 2012

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

There is something many of my blog readers may not know about me, and I need to confess it now.  I used to work for Colonial Williamsburg.  If you don't know about Colonial Williamsburg, go check out the website - among other things, it is one of the biggest living history museums and it is an amazing place.  This was a time of my life where I wore a colonial costume to work every day.  I told visitors about colonial times, both in my daytime job as a visitor's aide and in my evening job as an interpreter, where I told ghost stories from that time period and gave tours.  I loved that job!  And for a girl from San Diego, who had been raised on the history of the California missions, it was fascinating to learn more about that time period.

So you might understand why I continue to read books about the time around the Revolutionary War.  History came alive for me during my time in Williamsburg, and I like to recognize events I already know something about, and fit that information into the bigger timeline.  After working for Colonial Williamsburg, I went on to write my library school master's thesis on Thomas Jefferson's personal library.  Am I an expert on Thomas Jefferson?  Not even close.  In fact, while I knew many of the facts about Thomas Jefferson contained in these two books, I knew very little about his relationship with John Adams.  That's where both of these books came in handy.

My first pick is Those Rebels, John & Tom.  This book begins with both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams as babies.  Kerley sets out to show their differences (and there are many).  Sometimes each man has his own page with a few sentences on it (John quite often skipped school, but Tom loved learning and reading).  Sometimes, though, the book design features both presidents on one large double-page spread.  Then one man takes precedence over the other.  For instance, Adams is a debater who loves to argue, and is featured on most of the spread, shouting in the courtroom, while Tom meekly scribbles his ideas at a desk in the far corner of the spread.  Both of them have firmly held ideas, but those ideas could not be more different.

Until the time comes to protest against King George's tyranny, that is.  At this crucial time in history, both men's differing life experiences bring them to the same breaking point.  The American colonies cannot continue on under King George's rule.  And from this starting point, the two Founding Fathers begin to come to a mutual understanding and appreciation that eventually helps to create the Declaration of Independence.

Kerley has an infectious way of writing that makes history very readable.  She includes the details that make these men interesting to young readers, such as Tom drinking punch in the taverns of Philadelphia.  Kerley shows the readers the big picture of this moment in American history without bogging them down.  She has a talent for distilling this enormous history into the points that are best told through these men's two contradictory characters.  Kerley uses quotes from each man's writing to support her viewpoint of their lives.  It helps young readers feel like they are getting to know these historical figures in a very real way.  Their lives are so different from ours, but still very human.

I really like this book, and one of the many things I like best about it are the illustrations.  Edwin Fotheringham works so well with Kerley's text to depict and expand what's written.  Because Kerley has really simplified the text, Fotheringham uses his illustrations to show more of the detail surrounding these men.  For instance, Kerley talks about how Thomas Jefferson "lunged, parried, and skewered the policies of King George and his government.".  Fotheringham draws Jefferson lunging towards King George, with a bayonet that is really a quill splattering ink all over George.  His style is that of an editorial cartoonist, and that brings humor to this story too.  As readers mature and learn more sophisticated information about the American Revolution, they will appreciate even more of the detail of these illustrations.

One choice that helps this book feel fresh and modern is the color palette.  While other colors are used to highlight or supplement, the primary colors are a sky blue, a rusty red, and a yellow that is almost the color of mustard (I'd love to know what this color is really called!).  There is also a deep navy used where you would traditionally see black.  These colors are powerful and rich, and even though they feel modern, this book doesn't scrimp on historical accuracy either.  Its design, illustrations and text are first-rate.
After I had decided to write about Those Rebels John & Tom, I came across Worst of Friends in our library's catalog, and decided I'd better look at that one, too.  What is so interesting is how well these books complement each other.  Jurmain looks at some of these men's contradictory personality traits, but she looks at them primarily as adults.  She spends very little time talking about the time before the Revolutionary War, where Kerley's book ends with the Declaration of Independence.  She moves forward, beginning in 1790.  At that time John & Tom had very strong, opposing ideas about how to run the country.  John was a Federalist, who believed that the President should have ultimate power to protect the laws and people of the United States.  Tom became a Republican who believed that one person should never wield all the power - that the Federalist theory dangerously resembled the British monarchy.  But when John became president, Tom was vice president, no matter what they thought of each other's ideas.

In 1800, their feud began when they ran against each other for the office of President, and Jefferson won.  They stopped speaking for many years, but finally Adams reached out and mended their rift.  The two men agreed to disagree about politics, and instead wrote of many other things in their lives.  Their friendship endured until they died on the same day (July 4th) in 1826.  This ongoing friendship was truly remarkable.

I think these books work so well together.  They both fall squarely in the nonfiction picture book camp.  While they both have a lot of information contained within their pages, the text is fairly concise and neither book feels too long.  They are both short enough to consider reading aloud, most likely in a classroom setting.  While Fotheringham's illustrations are more striking, Day's are traditional, very historically accurate, and with humor in the details.  Readers will laugh at Thomas Jefferson, before becoming President, emerging from a women's shop with boxes of corsets for Adams' daughter.  Or at Jefferson holding Adams back from fighting with King George after George snubs them both.

But I can't close a post on nonfiction picture books without commenting on their back matter.  In Worst of Friends, the "back matter" is actually in the front of the book, where a selected bibliography sits opposite a paragraph entitled "Can Presidents Be Pals?".  Those Rebels, John & Tom has much more extensive back matter.  Kerley ends the main text with the Declaration of Independence, but she summarizes their lives with a page-long Author's Note.  There is a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence across from the Note.  Then there is a page full of citations and sources for all of the quotations within the text.  This is the kind of back matter I've come to expect in my nonfiction, even for the youngest readers.
Both books gave me a new view of men I had come to know through their contributions to Colonial-era history.  I loved getting to know more about their lives and opinions.

Those Rebels, John & Tom.  Barbara Kerley; illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham.  Scholastic, 2012.
Worst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the True Story of an American Feud.  Suzanne Tripp Jurmain; illustrated by Larry Day.  Dutton, 2011.

both books borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

1 comment:

  1. Well, Miss Murray, I can say, without hesitation, I cannot wait to read this book. And, we now have even more to talk about. Great blog post, my friend!