Picture books for Presidents' Day

The following recent picture books provide engaging looks at the U.S. presidency; the people a president might work with, meet, or appoint; and the office’s power for good.

The Next President: The Unexpected Beginnings and Unwritten Future of America’s Presidents
by Kate Messner; illus. by Adam Rex
Primary    Chronicle    48 pp.
3/20    978-1-4521-7488-4    $18.99

“No matter who holds the job right now, the presidents of tomorrow are always out there somewhere.” There are picture books aplenty about United States presidents, but make way for this breath of fresh air. Messner presents brief profiles of each one through a particular lens: starting in 1789 with George Washington, she makes her way down the timeline to the current day, looking at which future presidents were alive when each predecessor served and what they were doing at the time. For instance, when Washington served, nine future presidents were already alive, though Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, and Zachary Taylor were still children. We often see more than one president at a time as we move through decades, accompanied by text boxes imparting relatable or little-known facts. Rex breathes life into these illustrations, showing the humanity absent from official portraits. Each president pictured is tagged with a number on these busy but never cluttered spreads so that we always know who’s who. And Messner doesn’t sugarcoat or whitewash history: “Most [of America’s earliest presidents] were wealthy, white, Protestant men,” she writes, and she notes that while Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal,” he himself owned slaves. The mood turns to awe-inspiring at the close, when we read that “at least ten of our future presidents are probably alive today,” the art here showing an inclusive group of children and adults at a museum of presidents, gazing hopefully into the unknown, “getting ready to lead.” Back matter includes a substantial bibliography. JULIE DANIELSON

The Only Woman in the Photo: Frances Perkins & Her New Deal for America
by Kathleen Krull; illus. by Alexandra Bye
Primary, Intermediate    Atheneum    48 pp.
2/20    978-1-4814-9151-8    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-4814-9152-5    $10.99

President Roosevelt usually gets credit for the New Deal programs that helped pull America out of the Great Depression, but as Krull’s latest picture-book biography (The Beatles Were Fab (and They Were Funny), rev. 5/13) makes clear, the real credit is due to “the first woman ever to join a presidential cabinet,” FDR’s Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. A shy and quiet child, Perkins was always thinking about the injustices she saw growing up. Inspired by advice from her grandmother ("when someone opens a door to you go forward"), Perkins would spend her life speaking up for the most vulnerable as a pioneering social worker, suffragist, and author. She helped improve conditions in NYC’s low-income neighborhoods and workplaces, and her activism led to a career in the “all-male world of politics.” As Secretary of Labor, Perkins proposed “nothing less than a restructuring of American society” with the New Deal and the Social Security Act of 1935. This inspiring biography of a woman who paved the way for so many future leaders (as the cleverly designed endpapers make clear) is long overdue. Krull’s straightforward yet passionate narrative is packed with information, succinctly pinpointing key biographical moments and explaining complex history. Direct quotes from Perkins in stylized hand-lettered script accompany Bye’s child-friendly digital illustrations, which are as dynamic and colorful as their remarkable subject. An author’s note and sources are appended. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Ruth Objects: The Life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
by Doreen Rappaport; illus. by Eric Velasquez
Primary, Intermediate    Disney-Hyperion    48 pp.
2/20    978-1-4847-4717-9    $17.99

Velasquez’s riveting jacket portrait of Ginsburg, superimposed on a facsimile of the U.S. Constitution, conveys a woman of purpose; Rappaport’s biography, largely focused on Ginsburg’s work for gender equality, reinforces this first impression. Despite societal inequalities between men and women in the 1950s, Ginsburg receives a full scholarship to Cornell and is then accepted to Harvard Law School. She graduates first in her class from Columbia (where she had transferred), but not a single law firm interviews her. She begins teaching at Rutgers with a salary less than her male counterparts and a legal barrier against claiming her student husband as a dependent. After joining several lawsuits addressing these issues, she successfully argues one such case before the Supreme Court. Rappaport’s narrative scope includes Ginsburg’s personal life, where her marriage mirrored her beliefs of shared and equal gender roles. Generous oil paintings place Ginsburg front and center except in illustrations relating to her marriage; there both husband and wife share the visual spotlight. Ginsburg’s own words, stating both the inequalities she endured and her own convictions, conclude thus: “When I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough women on the Court, and I respond when there are nine, people are shocked. But the Supreme Court has had nine men for ever so long, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” Appended with a timeline, notes from both author and illustrator, a brief bibliography, and source notes. BETTY CARTER

by Jonah Winter; illus. by Bryan Collier 
Primary    Schwartz & Wade/Random    40 pp. 
9/19    978-1-5247-6533-0    $17.99 
Library ed.  978-1-5247-6534-7    $20.99 
e-book ed.  978-1-5247-6535-4    $.10.99 

Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993) — who grew up to “change the law of the land” — was a skilled debater and orator from a young age. In engaging and accessible prose, Winter presents the facts of Marshall’s life as if presenting a case in court. Repeated words — “FACT” and “VERDICT”; “JUSTICE” and “INJUSTICE” — mark defining moments (“FACT: In the Deep South, most whites sitting in courtrooms had never even seen a black lawyer”); while the incorporation of vernacular phrases (“yeah, right”; “darn right he was scared”) creates a more conversational tone. To bolster the evidence for his case, Winter shows how Marshall was largely influenced by his father, who encouraged the young Thurgood to participate in legal discourse as a way to combat corruption and unfair practices. As a young lawyer, Marshall sharpened his hurt and disgust about unjust laws into irrefutable evidence to prove in cases across the country that separate is not equal, even though taking these cases put his life at risk. Years later, he continued to break new ground by becoming the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court (“JUSTICE”). Collier’s illustrations, rendered in watercolor and collage in shades of tan, green, and gray, set the scenes and enliven the historic material. The sometimes shadowy art reflects the violence and chaos that permeated Marshall’s everyday life. There are no source notes, but an author’s note presents a brief summary of Marshall’s life and career. MAIJA MEADOWS HASEGAWA

The Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne
by Lesa Cline-Ransome; illus. by John Parra
Primary    Wiseman/Simon    48 pp.
1/20    978-1-4814-6289-1    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-4814-6290-7    $10.99

Ethel L. Payne grew up on the South Side of Chicago surrounded by stories from her parents and from her grandparents, who had been enslaved. These stories, weekly trips to the library, and encouragement from teachers and family helped Payne become a strong writer. Believing that “somebody had to do the fighting, somebody had to speak up,” Payne became a journalist and used her work as a tool for activism throughout her life. She captured the stories of Black soldiers stationed in post–WWII Japan, which led to a job with the Chicago Defender. She began covering the presidency, “one of only three black journalists issued a White House press pass,” and worked through the Carter administration, becoming known as “The First Lady of the Black Press.” The moments from Payne’s life that Cline-Ransome chooses to highlight, paired with Parra’s textured, iconographic acrylic paintings, create a powerful story that demonstrates the way someone with a gift for writing can use it as a tool for fighting injustice. In an author’s note, Cline-Ransome discusses her own attempts at being a journalist and the fearlessness it takes to be an effective one. A bibliography and further reading list are appended. NICHOLL DENICE MONTGOMERY

Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln 
by Margarita Engle; illus. by Rafael López 
Primary    Atheneum    40 pp. 
8/19    978-1-4814-8740-5    $17.99 
e-book ed.  978-1-4814-8741-2    $10.99  

Engle and López (Drum Dream Girl, rev. 5/15) bring us another engaging story about a young, successful, female musician of Latinx descent. Teresa Carreño (1853–1917) learned to play piano early in life in Venezuela, her “happy hands danc[ing] / across all the beautiful / dark and light keys.” When the young musician was eight, her family members had to flee their war-torn country and move to New York. In this foreign city she became a well-known child prodigy. Her skill and status provided her with traveling opportunities and an extraordinary chance: to play at the White House for President Lincoln, who was still grieving the death of his young son. There she plays joyfully and with improvisation, knowing that “her music / had brought comfort to a grieving family, / at least for one brief, wonderful evening / of dancing hands.” Engle’s writing shines through powerful descriptions and connections between music and feelings. López’s vivid illustrations expertly alternate between lush, vibrant hues, and gray, muted depictions of darker times; they evoke characters and historical settings with absorbing detail. A brief historical note with more facts about Carreño’s life is appended. ALICIA K. LONG

From the February 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book
Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

Natasha Wing

Totally intrigued by Messner's The Next President. What a fresh and clever way of looking at who might become our next president. It gives kids hopes and dreams that they could be our next leader. Kudos, Kate! Also wanted to mention, even though it's not out yet, my new book, The Night Before Election Day. It's a simple introduction to the voting process and also encourages future voters to get involved when they are old enough.

Posted : Feb 21, 2020 06:15


Community matters. Stay up to date on breaking news, trends, reviews, and more.

Get access to reviews of books, ebooks, and more


We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing