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Our Country's Presidents

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Book cover art for Our Country's Presidents
National Geographic Society
If you are looking for a good U.S. history reference book for middle grade students, I recommend Our Country's Presidents, which covers the Presidents of the United States from George Washington to Barack Obama. I recommend the 224-page nonfiction book for ages 10 and up, not only on the basis of its contents, but also because of its design, format and ease of use.

Overview of What I Looked For

When I began looking for a good reference book about U.S. Presidents, I looked for one that provided some context for viewing each presidency, that was well-documented and written, that included illustrations which made good use of period photographs, photographs of museum exhibitions and monuments, historic pictures and ephemera to tell the story, that included both basic facts and more substantial information about each presidency and that also provided some general information about the government of the United States. I also felt it was equally important that the book be interesting enough to engage students' interest and be easy for students, 10 years old to teen, to locate information. Of all the books that I read, Our Country's Presidents came the closest to meeting all of my criteria.

The Book's Organization

After a foreword by President Barack Obama, an introduction to the book provides information on how to use the book and describes such components as the time lines, profiles of each President, presidential portraits, fact boxes and thematic spreads, as well as reference aids at the end of the book. The Presidents are covered in chronological order, from George Washington through Barack Obama's reelection.

The book is divided into the following six historical periods, each of which is introduced with a two-page annotated timeline: The Presidency and How It Grew: 1789-1837, From Sea to Shining Sea: 1837-1861, A New Birth of Freedom: 1861-1897, America Takes Center Stage: 1897-1933, Seeking Stability in the Atomic Age: 1933-1981, Footprints on the Global Frontier: 1981-Present.

There are also close to two dozen 2-page thematic spreads scattered throughout the book that emphasize how specific themes and the Presidency are related. They cover a wide variety of subjects. A few of my favorites are The White House: The Building and Its History, The Powers of the President: The Executive Branch in Government and Presidents and the Supreme Court: A Legacy That Lasts. There is also entertaining coverage of some lighter subjects, including White House traditions, such as the annual Easter Egg Roll, life for kids living in the White House and the mystery of the 20-year curse.

A detailed table of contents uses blue stars to highlight each historical period and red stars to highlight the thematic spreads, as well as providing the start and end page for every section, including each President, to make it easier to quickly locate information. The 4-page long Chart of Presidential Election Results at the end of the book has information about each election through 2012, including the candidates' political parties, the names of the elected president and vice-president, the percentage of the popular vote earned by each candidate and the electoral vote. Other reference aids include the index, bibliography, and the resource guide listing related books, videos and television programs and Web sites.

The Story of Each Presidency

Most of the sections on each President are 4 to 6 pages long. Each section begins with a double-page spread with the official presidential portrait on the left and a box of quick facts about the President and the beginning of the presidential profile on the right, along with several spot illustrations. A copy of the presidential signature and a quotation by the President are also included. Each profile emphasizes the president's political life and the problems and accomplishments of his Presidency.

The Book's Staff, Author and Consultants

As is customary with books published by National Geographic Society, a large number of skilled people worked on this book. The fact that these included a project editor, art director, senior illustrations editor, associate designer, illustrations editor, director of maps and associate managing editor, among others, undoubtedly accounts for the quality of the book's design and layout, as well as its excellent illustrations.

The author Ann Bausum specializes in books about U.S. history for ages 10 and older. A graduate of Beloit College in Wisconsin, Bausum has written a number of books that have garnered recognition and awards. This includes being honored by the National Council for the Social Studies and the Children's Book Council for a Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People.

In addition to Our Country's Presidents and several others, Bausum's books include: Marching to the Mountaintop: How Poverty, Labor Fights, and Civil Rights Set the Stage for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Final Hours; Unraveling Freedom: The Battle for Democracy on the Home Front During World War I; Denied, Detained, Deported: Stories from the Dark Side of American Immigration; Muckrakers: How Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and Lincoln Steffens Helped Expose Scandal, Inspire Reform, and Invent Investigative Journalism; Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement; and With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman's Right to Vote.

Two consultants also assisted with Our Country's Presidents: William B. Bushong, the staff historian for the White House Historical Association, and Dr. Robert D. Johnston, associate professor and director of the Teaching History Program and the University of Chicago.

(Sources: Our Country's Presidents, p. 224, and Ann Bausum's Web site)

My Recommendation

If you are like most parents or teachers, you are looking for one reference book about the U.S. Presidents for your home or classroom. I recommend Our Country's Presidents for ages 10 and up. At first, I thought in terms of recommending the book only for ages 10 to 14, but I found the book so interesting that I think it would also be of interest to high school students and adults. (National Geographic Society, Fourth Edition, 2013. ISBN: 9781426310898)

Recommended Historical Fiction

If your kids enjoy historical fiction, they're in luck. There's a lot of good middle grade historical fiction available, including these award-winning books: Johnny Tremain (1770s), The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (1899), Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1933), Countdown, Book 1 The Sixties Trilogy (1962) and Inside Out and Back Again (1970s).

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