The Next President

We all know you can throw a rock and hit a children’s book about presidents. They are everywhere. And they are necessary so that we can learn about (and learn from) our past.

But not all nonfiction children’s books about presidents are created equal. When Kate Messner’s and Adam Rex’s The Next President showed up earlier this year, I was intrigued. And immediately impressed. It’s a breath of fresh air—informative, accessible, funny, and (best of all) frank in that it refuses to whitewash American history. (The book notes, for example, that President 2, John Adams, “was the only one of the first five presidents who didn’t enslave people.”) It’s a dynamic marriage of art and text that went on to receive multiple starred reviews.

And any number of illustrators could have tackled this one, but I’m glad Adam Rex was chosen.

This book is what the subtitle tells you: The Unexpected Beginnings and Unwritten Future of America’s Presidents. “No matter who holds the job right now,” we read, “the presidents of tomorrow are always out there somewhere.” This is the lens used throughout the book: we are looking at which future presidents were alive when each predecessor served and what they were doing at the time. We kick things off in 1789 with George Washington — when he became president, there were nine future presidents already alive in our country, and “Presidents 8, 9, and 12 were all kids” —  and we make our way down the timeline to 1961 (when our current president was a teenager). This means, for example, you see Eisenhower as a boy, playing baseball in 1897 when William McKinley was president. This means we read that, in 1961 when Kennedy was president, President 40 (Ronald Reagan) was working as a TV host. And we see Obama as a newborn, because in 1961, he and Presidents 42, 43, and 45 were "all kids." You get the idea.

Wisely, the framework Rex uses for all of this is a museum of history. He shows a truly diverse group of people taking in an exhibit. There’s an elderly person in a wheelchair looking at a portrait of James Garfield; there’s a Black woman looking out at us at the book’s fourth wall; there’s a white man (looking a lot like a self-portrait of Adam Rex) with a baby in a sling; and there’s a woman in a hijab looking at a painting of Reagan. In other words, Rex is communicating that America belongs to all of us, even if we’re about to read about a whole host of white men. 

At the book’s close, we see this museum again — remember that it is the frame that holds this book together — and there is a blank portrait on the wall for President 46. (We hope to know tomorrow which portrait will belong in that frame.) On this page of museum-goers taking in the exhibit Rex also includes a portrait of Hillary Clinton; a young blonde girl in a red top and white leggings stares up proudly at this portrait, hands on her hips. Clinton is the only presidential nominee who did not win the election included on these museum walls. Is this fair? Is this biased, as more than one reviewer has noted? To be blunt, I don’t care. Maybe this makes me a lousy, undisciplined reviewer, but at least there’s one woman on those museum walls, and there should be more. More to the point, though, that part of the text on that same page reads …

“The truth is America’s earliest presidents weren’t all that different from one another. Most were wealthy, white, Protestant men who might have been surprised if they’d been around to see a Catholic or an African American man elected president . . . or a woman nominated by a major party for the highest office in the land.”

I love this truthful, plainspoken text (not often seen in children’s books about presidents), and arguably it allows for the presence of a woman on this museum wall, even if she didn’t make it past the presidential finish line. All that's to say: Messner is trying to make a point here, and Rex decided to amplify it. Maybe I can’t see past my own blinding feminism, but I, for one, say: thank you, Adam Rex.

I haven’t even gotten to the many spreads that this museum visit frames, but here’s what you need to know: as we take our journey throughout the decades to read who was doing what (and when), Rex takes this busy, detailed text — essentially a list of facts buoyed by good storytelling — and handles it with finesse, managing to avoid visual clutter. We see more than one president at a time (at various ages) as we move through the decades, and a lot of smart illustration and design choices were made to help readers follow along without confusion. Each president pictured is tagged with a number so that we know who’s who, and a larger, blue-colored font is used to follow the sequencing (“President 21, President 22,” etc.). These numbers are included in text boxes that are used to impart relatable or little-known facts about each person, and a line points from each box to the corresponding man on the page.

Best of all, as I noted in my Horn Book review of this book, Rex breathes life into these illustrations. He shows the humanity that is often absent from official presidential portraits. He is an illustrator capable of taking us to intricate, imaginative fantasy worlds (he used to illustrate role-playing games) and over-the-top metafictive adventures, but let’s not forget how skilled he is at portraits and capturing a subject’s likeness. (And he does so with occasional moments of humor, such as the moment we see Warren Harding, who had "a penchant for pets," sitting next to his dog at a cabinet meeting.)

And there are other illustration and design choices here that make my heart sing. How about that cover with the Mystery Next President standing in the glowing doorway! Also, be sure to remove the dust jacket to see a dramatic (yet still somehow understated) surprise illustration. And! Be sure to note the front endpapers. You know how you sometimes see a spot for a child to enter their name (“This book Belongs to …”)? Here it says: “This Country Belongs to ….” This is placed inside an outline of the United States, and this whole part gives me happy goosebumps. Also! Note that a gold propulsive line runs all throughout the book — from the front of the dust jacket to the back. It never disappears. It guides readers; it drives the narrative; and it helps bring visual cohesion to the illustrations.

Wait! One more also! Notice the illustration on the back of the dust jacket. There’s a line of presidents holding signs with numbers. In the front of that line is a Black woman, holding a sign that says “51.” In front of her is an Asian girl, holding a sign that says “53.” After all, the book notes, “at least ten of our future presidents are probably alive today.” Could one of these people be the next to lead? What are they doing right now? The next president — we read on the book’s final spread, in which Rex has illustrated an Asian boy doing Tai Chi; a Black girl working on a laptop; and a white boy reading a comic — is “listening, learning, and getting ready to lead.” It’s a thought-provoking and genuinely inspiring notion for young readers to ponder.

 

Julie Danielson
Julie Danielson
Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.
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DEBBIE REESE

That page that gave you goosebumps, Julie, set me off. Jean Mendoza and I have one post about the book, so far. https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2020/11/questions-about-messner-and-rexs-next.html

Posted : Nov 19, 2020 06:19


Rebecca Martinak

Interesting that I decided to look at reviews on Amazon, as I do for any book, and over 25% of them are very negative, pointing out that our 45th President isn't mentioned in the book, whilst Hilary Clinton IS, giving false and slanted information. Not something a true educator would ever want to do or endorse.

Posted : Nov 17, 2020 01:15

Martha Parravano

Pretty sure 45 appears, as an adolescent. See page 33.

Posted : Nov 17, 2020 01:15

Jules Danielson

Yep, he's definitely in there.

Posted : Nov 23, 2020 10:59


Mary Stevens

Your reviews ALWAYS make me want to buy the book! And here's the latest example!

Posted : Nov 08, 2020 05:47


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