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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

St. George, Judith So You Want to Be President?;illus. by David Small. Philomel, 2000. 53p
ISBN 0-399-23407-1   $17.99    Gr. 3-5

While accounts of particular presidents abound, rarely are they as entertaining as this collective biography of chief executives. St. George interweaves facts and anecdotes in a breezily informative style in this tongue-in-cheek guide, which gains additional appeal by directly addressing the reader ("You probably weren't born in a log cabin. That's too bad. People are crazy about log-cabin Presidents"). Political accounts of presidencies are found elsewhere; this is primarily a personal history, presenting a cleverly arranged array of the most entertaining characteristics and habits of commanders-in-chief throughout American history.

Eschewing chronological order, St. George chooses instead to survey the presidents as a group of people with certain commonalities and distinctions. Topics include common first names for presidents ("If you want to be President, it might help if your name is James"), as well as the great variety of presidential stature (from 5'4" James Madison to 6'4" Abraham Lincoln) and girth (from 100 lb. James Madison to over 300 lb. William Howard Taft). Such facts are interspersed with intriguing and pithy anecdotes about presidential personalities ("Our first President did a mean minuet"), as well as most embarrassing moments ("Once when [John Quincy Adams] was skinny-dipping in the Potomac River, a woman reporter snatched his clothes and sat on them until he gave her an interview").

Small's line-and-watercolor illustrations draw from the tradition of political cartooning, showing caricatured figures with enlarged heads and exaggerated features; these illustrations complement the jaunty text with kid-appealing images of some of the most outrageous presidential behaviors described, such as Andrew Jackson's fourteen duels, brawls, fights, and shootings, the victims of which are shown sprawled out into the distance behind a fist-swinging Jackson. Illustrations are also chock-full of jokes for adults, as in one scene showing Richard Nixon bowling a strike in the White House bowling alley, hands raised in victory signs, with Pat Nixon and Henry Kissinger clapping politely in the background while Gerald Ford steps up to bowl next.

While most of the tone is humorous, St. George and Small do not neglect darker moments in the history of American presidents. In a smooth segue from a discussion of presidential looks, St. George writes about the contrast between Warren Harding's physical attractiveness and his severe shortcomings as president, while Small's illustration shows a royally robed Harding strolling alone down a fashion-show runway. In the most somber spread in the book, St. George emphasizes the necessity for honesty as chief executive while the artwork depicts Clinton and Nixon walking down the shadowy steps of the Lincoln Memorial, their heads bowed in shame as Lincoln stares searchingly after them.

Since presidents from various time periods appear together (often humorously) in the illustrations, a presidential identification key appears in the back, along with a bibliography and a chronology including dates and major events of each presidency. Although St. George's approach tends to emphasize the diversity of presidential personae, she does not neglect to note that the group has been unleavened by variation in gender, race, and creed ("No woman has been President. No person of color has been President. No person who wasn't a Protestant or Roman Catholic has been President"). Despite a slightly rambling conclusion, St. George's final pages sum up inspiringly with the president's oath of office ("Only thirty-five words!") and the affirmation that most presidents, "tall, short, fat, thin, talkative, quiet, vain, humble, lawyer, teacher, or soldier," have done their best to follow that oath, working to "faithfully execute the office of President of the United States." Future presidents in classrooms and libraries everywhere will giggle at and then applaud the quirkily inspiring individuals who have served as president of the United States.

--Kate McDowell, Reviewer

Big Picture Image
July's Bulletin cover illustration by David Small
from So You Want to Be President?,
Copyright 2000. Used by permission of Philomel Books



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