American Originals

Those delegates to the Second Continental Convention probably had no idea what they were creating when they signed a certain document back in July of 1776, but the American dreams have come true in unexpected ways ever since. Here’s a roundup of recent picture books on the varieties of American experience:

Write On, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren, by Gretchen Woelfle, illustrated by Alexandra Walner. Calkins Creek, 2012. Age/interest level: 5-7

Mercy Otis, born 1728, was blessed with a father who believed girls should receive the same level of education as boys, so she attended the same village school as her brother James. She couldn’t follow James to Harvard, except for dances and parties. At one of these she met her future husband, James Warren. James respected her mind and encouraged her writing talent. Thus, her “secret life”: “When her children were asleep, she wrote poems. She didn’t let her schooling fade away. A good thing, too, because circumstances conspired to bring revolutionary ferment almost to her doorstep. Mercy’s brother James Otis was active in patriot circles and might have become a founding father if he hadn’t been beaten so severely in a brawl with loyalists that he ended up with permanent brain damage. When that happened, Mercy threw her pen into the fray: “Who can be an unconcerned and silent spectator? Not surely the fond mother or the affectionate wife who trembles lest her dearest connections should fall victims of lawless power.” Throughout the conflict she battled for the cause with poems and political plays. After the shooting stopped, she wrote one of the first histories of the war, under her own name.

The storyline leans a little heavily on the “women held back” theme, but shows Mercy Warren as a devoted wife and mother with ideas reaching beyond the four walls of home. Let her husband call hr blessed: “God has given you great abilities . . . For all these I esteem, I love you in a degree that I can’t express. They are all now to be called into action for the good of Mankind, for the good of your friends, for the promotion of virtue and patriotism” (James Warren, 1775).

The illustrations are influenced by early American primitivism, creating an ambiance of the time. A nice portrait of Mercy Warren by John Singleton Copley is included.

Hanging Off Jefferson’s Nose, by Tina Nichols Coury, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport. Dial, 2012, 31 pages. Age/interest level: 5-8.

Lincoln Borglum was only twelve when his father, the only mountain sculptor in the world, proposed an alternate project to the citizens of Rapid City, South Dakota. They wanted the great Gutzon Borglum to sculpt a wild west rider from the local rocks. He sold them on another sort of attraction: a massive group portrait of our three greatest presidents. It took a year to find the right kind of granite in the right quantity, and two more to actually begin blasting away. Lincoln was along for the ride, mixing plaster, taking measurements, and in time even managing dynamite. At nineteen he was accepted by the University of Virginia to study engineering, but decided to forgo the degree in favor of the real-life education he got on Mount Rushmore.

That education would be desperately needed when his father (after accepting another job and leaving Lincoln in charge of Rushmore) unexpectedly died after a minor surgical procedure. What happened next should inspire fathers and sons and all patriotic Americans. A great story, and part of our heritage that shouldn’t be lost.

All the Way to America: the Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel, written and illustrated by Dan Yaccarino. Knopf, 2011. Age/interest level: 3-5

“My great-grandfather Michele Iaccarino grew up on a farm in Sorrento, Italy. When he was a boy, his father gave him a little shovel so he could help tend the zucchini, tomatoes, and strawberries that his family sold in the village. They worked hard but were always very poor.”  So Michele pluckily decided to come to American: “Work hard,” his father told him, handing over the shovel–“But remember to enjoy life.” “And don’t forget your family,” added Mama, tucking in her recipe for tomato sauce. The shovel came in handy in the bakery where Michele found work.  Later, when he bought his own produce cart, the shovel helped keep his inventory in order.  Mama’s tomato sauce showed up at countless family dinners.

Michele’s son Dan used the shovel in the market he opened with his wife Helen–and later used his grandmother’s tomato sauce recipe in their restaurant. Dan’s son Mike opened a barbershop, and the shovel helped him spread salt over the sidewalk when it snowed—also to dig up his garden in the suburbs, where little Danny grew up. Danny eventually moved back to New York City, taking the shovel and the traditional advice: “Work hard, enjoy life, and don’t forget your family.”

Danny now writes and illustrates children’s books. With his little boy Michael he grows garden vegetables on their terrace, with the help of . . . you guessed it. Simple illustrations fit a simple narrative, and kids will enjoy finding the recurring motifs of shoves, tomatoes, future spouses, family meals. A sweet and simple look at some of the best things in life, and how America helped the Yaccarinos enjoy theirs.

 

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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1 Comments

  1. Sunday Salon: Cybils Nominations » Semicolon on October 7, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    […] of Mercy Otis Warren by Gretchen Woelfle, illustrated by Alexandra Walner. Calkins Creek, 2012. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader. Hanging Off Jefferson’s Nose by Tina Nichols Coury, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport. Dial, […]

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