Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Power of Presidential Biographies

There has been a flood of biographies of presidential candidates this year. The president elected on November 4th, 2008, will undoubtedly have many more biographies written about him in the future, whether or not he is a "great" president. The times are such that if he deals effectively with them he will probably be acclaimed as one of the greatest presidents the U.S. ever had. If he is the person I will be voting for, I think many of my historical heroes will be cheering from Heaven (smile).

In any case, presidential biographies taught me to love reading and many other children have also experienced similar fascination with history and biography. We have generally gone on to believe firmly in the importance of voting. There are many articles right now about how children are participating in mock elections and watching the current election with fascination. For the sake of all our children, do go vote, no matter who you vote for.

This is my story of the power of presidential biographies:

I can't remember a time when I didn't read. My family tells the story of how I became an enthusiastic reader as follows:

On my seventh birthday, January 10th, 1972, I came home from school and proclaimed that Richard Nixon was the greatest president ever. Apparently my teacher had been praising Nixon to her class. She had been talking about Nixon's upcoming visit to China. The class had even written a letter to Nixon and he had replied with a signed book. This was before Watergate of course.

My parents, life-long Democrats, were very upset to hear me praising Nixon. My father said there were many many much greater presidents. I said who?, and he started listing them all in order from George Washington on down. When he got tangled up with Grover Cleveland, et al, he took me down to the local library and we came back with a bag of children's presidential biographies. I sat down and read all of those books then went back for more. By the end of that school year, the teacher, who had been complaining I wasn't reading on my own enough, was complaining I was reading too much!

I did some exploring and found two familiar covers that are shown above. I don't remember the stories in the books, but I remember those covers and the stepping lion symbol, for the series: Step-Up Books.

This bookdealer's website has covers and scans of some of the pages of books in the Step-Up series and they look very familiar.

I went on to read other biographies and historical fiction, and one author that I really loved was Genevieve Foster. She wrote and illustrated George Washington's World (New York: Scribner's, 1941) and Abraham Lincoln's World (New York: Scribner's, 1946) as well as quite a few other books. These two books won Newbery honor medals in 1942 and 1946 respectively. What was magical about these books for me was that they not only began with images of the main characters' childhoods but talked about historical events worldwide, setting their lives into historical perspective and telling me about fascinating people and events happening at the same time around the world. I collected any of Foster's books I could lay my hands on, and since I've discovered I don't have them all, may collect the rest! While digging for information for this post, I found that five are in print at Beautiful Feet Books, although the two I name here have been changed and expanded by Genevieve Foster's daughter Jeanne Foster. They are apparently very popular with homeschool families.

I would go on to read many more biographies and works of historical fiction and ended up a historian, genealogist, and rare book librarian, all through the power of these books.

So, on Tuesday morning, I will go stand in line to vote, and I hope all of you that read my blog will go to vote. If you live outside of the U.S., please vote in your own elections!

See Chasing Ray's Blog the Vote for many great posts on the importance of voting!


Alkelda the Gleeful said...

I read most of those biographies too! Wouldn't it be grand to have a whole series of the Genevieve Foster books on presidents? I'm surprised someone else hasn't taken up the idea and run with it... or have they done so already and I didn't know? Anyway, thank you for writing this post.

Jenny Schwartzberg said...

Thanks Alkelda. Yes, I'm wistful that no one is doing books quite like Genevieve Foster's books. I'll have to go dig out the 4 or 5 I have packed away in boxes. I was amazed to find how many others I had missed... Definitely time to hunt for copies!

jama said...

Thank you; I enjoyed this post. Lately, I've been hooked on reading presidential biographies :)!