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Our White House: Looking In Looking Out

An Anthology of American History

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating

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Cover art of Our White House: Looking In Looking Out, children's book about American history
Candlewick Press
Our White House: Looking In Looking Out is a fascinating book about the White House, the home of the President of the United States. Eight years in the making, this children’s book was developed by (and for the benefit of) the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance (NCBLA), with the assistance of 108 well-known authors and illustrators and a number of organizations. According to the NCBLA, it "created Our White House to address and promote both literacy and historical literacy."

Our White House – The Book’s Organization and Design

Our White House: Looking In Looking Out is a big hardbound book. It is about 9” by 11” and is 242-pages. The contents are divided into seven sections, beginning with the first occupants of the White House and ending with the 43rd president. Each section contains from 8 to 20 entries. The very first entry is a humorous poem by Jane Yolen, “The White House First Residents: An Imagined Conversation Between John and Abigail Adams,” illustrated by Petra Mathers. By the end of the book, information about the the White House and its residents, through the presidency of George W. Bush, has been presented through historical fiction, nonfiction, poetry, artwork, personal essays, and excerpts from speeches, letters, interviews, memoirs and reports.

While the fact that the historical information is presented in so many different ways is part of the book’s charm, it is also somewhat confusing to the reader. For example, when reading some of the entries, I was interested in how closely they adhered to reality. However, while at the end of the book, there is a section titled “Notes on Sources Used by the Authors,” it doesn’t include information on every entry.

I wanted to compare the sources of historical information used for the accounts of Dolley Madison’s role in saving the portrait of George Washington during the second year of the War of 1812. In the Notes section, I found information about one of the three entries and in the “Copyright Acknowledgments and Credits for Public Domain Materials,” I found more information about another, but there were no sources listed for Meg Cabot’s amusing fictional account of the event.

Some of the entries are humorous, some are serious. Some of the entries emphasize family life in the White House, others emphasize important themes in history. For example, there is an excerpt from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Address to Congress on January 6, 1941, in which he discusses “a world founded upon four essential freedoms.” This is followed by a series of double-page spreads of artwork illustrating Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Other entries provide insight about life in the White House for the First Family and/or those who worked there. Many of the entries include full-page illustrations.

One double-page illustration at the end of the book deserves a special mention. It is the entertaining 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: Who’s in the House, created by Bob Kolar, which depicts a numbered sidewalk winding back and forth to the White House. By each number is a clever illustration of the appropriate president, from the first to the forty-third. That page is followed by another double-page spread with a brief description of each president’s residency in the White House. The book has a detailed index, which I found helpful. In addition, as a companion to Our White House, the NCBLA has created a website, www.ourwhitehouse.org that includes resources to provide readers of the book more information about American history.

Our White House – The Authors and Illustrators

The list of those who had a part in creating the book reads like a who’s who of children’s literature. It includes such well-known authors and illustrators as Stephen Alcorn, M.T. Anderson, Natalie Babbitt, Joseph Bruchac, Eric Carle, Susan Cooper, Kate DiCamillo, Diane Dillon, Leo Dillon, Jean Craighead George, Kevin Hawkes, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Paul B. Janeczo, P.J. Lynch, David Macaulay, Patricia MacLachlan, Walter Dean Myers, Linda Sue Park, Richard Peck, Jerry Pinkney, Jack Prelutsky, Chris Raschka, Jon Scieszka, Brian Selznick, Jerry, Spinelli, and Ed Young, to name a few. Historian and author David McCullough also assisted the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance with the book, as did a number of organizations, including the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress.

Our White House – My Recommendation

Our White House is an impressive accomplishment. I recommend Our White House for older children and young teens. The book is not necessarily one most 9- to 14-year-olds will read straight through, although some will. Instead, Our White House is a book they’re likely to dip into again and again. I think Our White House can be used very effectively in the classroom, although I regret that it doesn’t include specific information about historical fiction versus nonfiction, and primary versus secondary sources. I also think that Our White House would be a good book for a family to read aloud and discuss together. (Candlewick Press, 2008. ISBN: 9780763620677)
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