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America 1.0

Covering elections, icons, and symbols, recent books introduce the younger set to the political scene

By Peter F. Neumeyer
August 17, 2008
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Lady Liberty: A Biography
Written by Doreen Rappaport
Illustrated by Matt Tavares
Candlewick, 40 pp., ages 4-8, $17.99

See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White House
Written by Susan E. Goodman
Illustrated by Elwood H. Smith
Bloomsbury, 96 pp., ages 9-12, paperback, $9.95

Otto Runs for President
By Rosemary Wells
Scholastic, 32 pp., ages 4-8, $15.99

As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel's Amazing March Toward Freedom
Written by Richard Michelson
Illustrated by Raul Colón
Knopf, 40 pp., ages 4-8, $16.99

W. H. Auden once said that although there are good books that are only for adults, there are no good books that are only for children. And since we have limited space, we'll plunge right in - children's books with plenty of allure for adults.

"Lady Liberty: A Biography" is a generous production, as befits the gigantic inspirational statue that welcomed author Doreen Rappaport's Latvian grandfather to these shores. The story is told in sidebars along every double spread, beginning in 1865, with law professor Edouard de Laboulaye recalling the role the United States and France played in each other's revolution. Laboulaye helps subsidize the sculptor Auguste Bartholdi to see the "colossal natural wonders" of the great New World for himself, and by 1875 Bartholdi is making clay models, planning his massive giantess as "grand as any one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World." We watch the copper skin, impervious to the salt air of New York harbor, being fitted onto the gargantuan iron ribbing. Emma Lazarus writes her poem; laborers dig and pour the massive foundation; more money must be raised; and finally the statue rises. French and American flags stretch up and down the Hudson River. Millions of Americans come to watch as bands play and soldiers march. Bartholdi climbs the 354 steps to Liberty's crown; a cord loosens the great tricolor flag. And now there she stands in a double unfolding spread, the torch of liberty held high in her hand.

The sidebar prose is spare and factual, and diverse voices speak in tandem with Matt Tavares's illustrations, which are alternately head on, up close, or far away, and angled in and angled out into flipping perspectives.

"Lady Liberty" is neither a simple nor a pretty book. It's as ambitious and oversize as its subject. It's a book for which adults must slow their reading speed, and with which children may dream their way up the winding stairs into Liberty's very crown, high above the clouds.

This is also the season for books about the American presidency. Susan Goodman's "See How They Run" - marketed for children - is essentially what I've privately and ill-temperedly come to call a social studies book. Nonetheless, this is a lively one with vibrant cartoons, fitting portraits, and breezy text. But somehow I doubt many kids are motivated to hunt for odd facts about the election of Grover Cleveland, or to ponder Warren Harding's handsome face. But in fact, I myself happily disappeared behind the book's covers for a good hour, discovering what I never knew about presidential history and the Electoral College, remembering the shenanigans of the Nixon campaign, and intrigued by elections won by only one vote. Undoubtedly the litmus test for the judiciousness of a book such as this is the manner in which it handles the 2004 process, which eventually resulted in the election of George W. Bush. I won't give it away except to say that this is a balanced book.

On the timely and even lighter side, Rosemary Wells's "Otto Runs for President" is a cautionary political tale for 4- to 8-year-olds. Its election is for "president of the school," and it features spoiled and pampered poodle Tiffany, "the cutest and the smartest," and bulldog Charles, "captain of all the teams." Both these typically Wellsian dogs flip into heavy campaign mode, posting grand, empty promises on every locker, and organizing rallies until, inevitably, attack ads and vile rumors poison the air. Meantime, humble Otto doggedly collects the requisite paw prints on his petition and promises only what is possible. Humble, honest and steady, of course, wins the day. Otto (perhaps unwittingly paraphrasing King Babar) declares, "It's hard work being president."

Richard Michelson's "As Good As Anybody" begins with the story of Martin Luther King's childhood and his heroic struggle for equal rights. King's tale eventually becomes entwined with a second, which begins around the same time but across the sea in Poland, with the birth of Abraham Joshua Heschel. When Hitler comes to power, the scholarly Abraham, like all Jews in Germany, is expelled from the university. And like so many others, he flees to America (as did I). As he approaches the shore, young Heschel gazes from the ship's stern at Lady Liberty, rendered here in colored pencil and watercolor, stylized, evocative, and subtly pastel in hue, by Raul Colón.

Recalling the indignities visited by one people upon another and being ever the fighter, Heschel prays with King. And then the two, the white man and the black, join hands and march past jeers and mobs, past the Klan and clubs and the curses of onlookers, the long march for voting rights that set out from Selma, Ala. "This too is God's work," Abraham tells Martin. "I feel like my legs are praying."

Three months later, King is shot, and Abraham speaks at his funeral. Michelson and Colón have created a noble memorial in one more book that is worthy of a child and instructive for an adult.

Author and critic Peter F. Neumeyer can be reached at neum1400@aol.com.

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