Reviewed in the United States on January 5, 2014
There is a brief moment of doubt when you first cast eyes upon the title of this book. It’s partly the design of the cover, I suppose. Your eye immediately alights on the words “Rutherford B., Who Was He?” and you find yourself thinking, “Is this some kind of lushly illustrated picture book biography of Rutherford B. Hays? Thankfully, no. An overwhelming sense of relief consumes you as your eyes alight on the subtitle, “Poems About Our Presidents”. Whew! Not to say a Hays picture book bio couldn’t exist, but to read it, even if it was brilliance on a page, would feel like the dullest kind of homework. Singer’s latest title, however, is anything but boring. A visually explosive mixture of fact and verse, this may not be the first presidential poetry collection for kids out there, but by gum it’s the best.
Our presidents. Who the heck were they? What was their deal? Were they villains or heroes? Memorable or forgettable? Did they serve out their term or die in a variety of grisly fashions? Stretching her poetic chops to the max, Marilyn Singer summarizes each and every fella. Sometimes they have long poems, and sometimes nothing more than a few sentences. Accompanied by artist John Hendrix’s eclectic art, the two weave these disparate men together, tying up their faults and finer distinctions. Backmatter includes a description of the job of the president, Presidential Biographies, and a list of Sources that Singer used to make this book.
Comparisons, sadly, are inevitably going to be made between this volume and The President’s Stuck in the Bathtub: Poems About the Presidents by Susan Katz, illustrated by Robert Neubecker. Both books go president-by-president bringing up facts about each feller. However, while Katz takes a lighthearted trivia take, Singer is talking about the real issues and problems these guys faced. Take the titular Rutherford B. Hayes. In Katz’s book we’ve an amusing diversion about how he installed the telephones in The White House. In Singer’s we’ve a clever poem explaining why he was called “His Fraudulency”. And while Katz wouldn’t touch Reagan’s controversial aspects with a ten-foot pole (his story is about accidentally treading on a lady’s train at a fancy gala), Singer dives right into it showing both the Democrat and Conservative contemporary thoughts on the man. More to the point there were things I “learned” in Katz’s book that I completely forgot until I read Singer’s. Cleveland served as president twice with Benjamin Harrison in between terms? Who knew? Best of all, Singer doesn’t do one poem per president in a traditional fashion. She mixed it up a bit. She puts guys like Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren in conversation with one another. Or she’ll cram all the dullards into section together, their accomplishments and failures popping up willy-nilly. It's freeing, really.
Singer also does something that most books about the presidents eschew: She shows both their strengths and their weaknesses. Even George Washington! Aside from being a slaveholder, few children’s books dare to mention that critics at the time criticized him for failing to establish a plan for the abolition of slavery. This, alongside many other facts, is located not in the poem itself but in the very brief Presidential Biography located at the back of the book. Singer's balanced attitude even extends even to Richard Nixon. The only reverso poem in the book (a technique Singer perfected in books like Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse and Follow Follow A Book of Reverso Poems), Nixon’s poem actually goes so far as to mention how the man opened up the gateway to China and helped to protect the environment in his day.
We all have our preferred presidents and the ones we just can’t stand. With that in mind, it is inevitable that folks are going to read through this book and disagree with Singer’s take on one prez or another. I, for example, think she was way too nice to official psychopath President Andrew Jackson (his musical isn’t called Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson for nothing, y’know). That said, you can’t please everybody. I’m more than willing to stomach the handling of Jackson (which, to be fair, does touch on some of his problems) so long as Reagan is seen as the divisive figure he remains to this day. Likewise, George W. Bush and Obama. In both cases she manages to work in both the criticisms aimed at them and their significance one way or another.
And then there’s the poetry itself. And some of those poems do, in fact, require a thorough reading of the little biographies at the end of the book. Admittedly, the kid that does go so far as to understand every word written there will be few and far between. But the poems are strong. I like that there are different kinds. From your standard ABABAB style to five line poems where the last word is the same rhyme on each line to the aforementioned reverso, to more. My favorite of all the poems, personally, is the discussion between Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. Here’s a sample:
Taylor: I swore to preserve the Union.
I roared: Do Not secede!
Fillmore: I felt the states should have their rights.
Pierce: I didn’t want this land to bleed.
And so I let the states decide –
Buchanan: Were they slave or were they free?
Taylor: I’d have hanged those rebels
from the nearest tree.
I’ve managed to go this long without bringing up the work of John Hendrix, which is a feat in and of itself, since much of the book’s success lands squarely on his broad and manly shoulders. Hendrix is a design nut’s dreamboy. He simply has to shake up every possible picture with the turn of a page. Helped not a little by Singer’s willingness to combine her presidents and their poems, one minute he’s drawn a conversation between the four presidents that preceded Lincoln (their speech balloons making them look not a little like the political cartooning style of the day) and the next he’s dipped Kennedy and Johnson in the blue light of a television screen with JFK speaking from the set and LBJ basking in its glow.
It’s difficult to say whether or not Hendrix is typecast into illustrating books about historical figures (preferably those of the mid-19th century) or if he just naturally selects those jobs. There’s no denying that when it comes to caricatures, he’s magnificent. Yet he also favors a form of illustration that brings to my mind nothing so much as the speech balloons of P.T. Bridgeport from the old Walt Kelly Pogo cartoons. That poster-like style has served him well over the years, but what I like so much about his work on this book is how he keeps the eye dancing over the pages. Observe how the dance between Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison takes place against a pure white background. Then you turn the page and BLAMMO!! Teddy Roosevelt is riding hell-for-leather over the head of William McKinley in a burst of orange and red. That’s my kind of poetry.
I am as certain as the sun shines in the sky that this is not the last book of presidential poetry we have yet to see. In perhaps five years (maybe more, maybe less) a new book will come out with a new spin. Nothing wrong with that. No book should be the be all or the end all on a particular subject. However, I do hope that folks realize with this particular title that aside from being chock full of great verse and art, the factual content makes this puppy invaluable. Smarter than a lot of the pure nonfiction titles out there, Singer and Hendrix have put together one whopper of a good collection. Here’s hoping more folks find it and take to it in the near future.
For ages 7 and up.