Books

Picture books frame politics, U.S. history

The news headlines and campaign ads provide a steady reminder that the 2008 presidential election is nearly upon us. But do you want to remind your kids what it's really all about – democracy?

Well, parents, this year there's no shortage of voting-themed picture books for younger children. Below are reviews of three of them – all, curiously enough, with dogs running for public office.

And for older children, there are two American history books to perhaps inspire civic-mindedness.

If you take your children with you to vote, you might take one of these books along, too. The lines are expected to be long.

MAX FOR PRESIDENT

By Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Dragonfly. Ages4-8. 40 pages. $6.99 paperback. ***

Think of this book as your child's first exposure to politics. Never again will the election process be so sweet and simple. Max runs for class president. So does Kelly. Max makes posters and buttons. So does Kelly. The kids vote. Kelly wins. Kelly is happy. Max is not. Kelly must pick a vice president. She picks Max and together they work to make the school better with pizza lunches and game room improvements.

OTTO RUNS FOR PRESIDENT

By Rosemary Wells. Scholastic. Ages4-8. 32 pages. $15.99. **

From the author who brought children rabbit siblings Max and Ruby comes a book about what public service is supposed to be – serving the people, not personal ego. But it's not a landslide win.

The race for president of Barkadelphia School comes down to two parties. There's Tiffany, a poodle and the most popular canine on campus. And there's Charles, a bulldog and the captain of all the teams. Both are vain and make shallow promises. They spend a lot of money on their campaigns. They sling mud and make false accusations. (Charles is a cheater!) Sound familiar? Yeah, it's a little heavy-handed. Then Otto, who appears to be a mutt, throws his name in. Otto keeps it simple – bakes cookies and listens to kindergartners – and wins. Yeah, unrealistic too? Not sure kiddos will care much about the message or if many parents will make it through more than a couple times.

Perhaps the best part of the book is a simple dedication – “For Elizabeth Edwards.”

LETTERS FROM THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL:

LaRUE FOR MAYOR

By Mark Teague. Blue Sky. Ages 4-8. 32 pages. $16.99. ***1/2

Here we have the race for mayor of Snort City. The action and drama – pitting a dog, Ike LaRue, against a police chief, Hugo Bugwort – is laid out in comic book fashion. Pictures alternate between color and black and white. Think of iconic images of a simpler time – hot dog cart, ice cream truck and hand-made elections signs.

Laid atop the images are newspaper clipping and letters from Ike to his owner, Mrs. LaRue, who is in the hospital after being injured in a hot-dog cart “fracas.” “This awful Bugwort continues his scurrilous attacks. Yesterday he referred to dogs as ‘gangs of hooligans.' He must be stopped. Therefore I have decided to ‘throw my hat into the ring.' …Your Next Mayor, Ike,” the canine candidate writes in one letter to his owner. In another, Ike confesses to turning her apartment into his campaign headquarters.

How does it turn out? Find out for yourself and don't spoil it for your kids. Getting to the end is truly fun.

AMERICA: THE MAKING OF A NATION

By Charlie Samuels. Little, Brown Young Readers. Ages 9-12. 30 pages. $19.99. ***

In a note to readers on the inside title page, Samuels explains how to think of this history book.

“I found this tattered suitcase in the dusty corner of my attic. … Remember that it belongs to each one of us – it is the story of America.”

Samuels' history lesson is told in scrapbook fashion.

For example, there's a reproduction of the John Trumbull painting showing the presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Congress in Independence Hall. Above every forefather's head is a number that corresponds to a key with his name. Readers can flip over a $2 bill and read about how this same painting is on the back of that bill – with one difference. On the $2 bill Jefferson is not standing on the foot of longtime opponent John Adams as he is in the original painting.

And there's a page with the story of the U.S. throughout history and instructions for making a five-pointed star as Betsy Ross did with one snip of the scissors.

If your kids – or you – are fans of interactive, hands-on museum exhibits, this book will be a hit.

OUR WHITE HOUSE: LOOKING IN, LOOKING OUT

By various authors. Candlewick. Ages 9-12. 256 pages. $29.99. ***1/2

This is a collection of stories about the White House, from the building of it by an Irish immigrant and team of slaves to every president and presidential family who has lived there.

Best are the more obscure tales, such as how Thomas Jefferson turned the country on to tomatoes, because apparently Americans had thought they were poisonous, or how Dolley Madison saved a portrait of George Washington from being burned along with the White House during the War of 1812.

Another highlight: stories of the people who served the presidents and their families, such as the farm boy from Ohio who ended up being John F. Kennedy's doctor and the freed slave who became seamstress and friend to one tough customer, Mary Todd Lincoln. One author writes of visiting the White House as a boy in 1950 and delivering a note for Harry Truman in which he asks for a basketball net.

And perhaps best of all: It's not a lot of words on white pages. The stories are short and the illustrations and photographs are beautiful. And the collection offers surprises for the reader, such as the story of Herbert Hoover's only term told in comic strip format and a poem by Jack Prelutsky about the Clintons' cat, Socks, who lived the good life. Here's the last stanza of Prelutsky's “I Live in the White House”:

“I've got plenty to drink,

and I've got plenty to eat.

I even take naps

at the President's feet.

Because I'm his pet,

I'm completely at ease.

I live in the White House

and do as I please.”

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