American Lives: a Picture Book Roundup

For Spacious Skies, Most Wanted, and Thomas Paine and the Dangerous Word feature the promise of the American experiment.

For Spacious Skies: Katharine Lee Bates and the Inspiration for “America the Beautiful” by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by Olga Baumert. Albert Whitman, 2020, 32 pages, including timeline and bibliography.

Reading level: Picture Book, ages 4-8

Recommended for: ages 6-10

Katherine Lee Bates spent her early girlhood in the shadow of the Civil War, while “the country’s heart was ripped in two.” After the war ended, her small seacoast town in Massachusetts didn’t seem to offer much for a bookish girl who loved to write. But her widowed mother worked long hours to afford school tuition, and as a young woman Katherine herself earned a scholarship to Wellesley. There she stayed, as student and later as a professor of literature, a reformer and suffragette, and an author. In 1893, an opportunity to teach a summer institute in Colorado opened her eyes to the vastness and splendor of her country. At the top of Pike’s Peak she was inspired to write the words to what later became known as “America the Beautiful.”

The colorful primitive-style illustration pays off with the double-page spread of the view from Pike’s Peak, which is truly inspirational. More than scenery, the text emphasizes American potential for granting equality and opportunity to women, immigrants, and former slaves, ending on a positive note.

Overall rating: 4 (out of 4)

Most Wanted: the Revolutionary Partnership of John Hancock & Samuel Adams by Sarah Jane Marsh, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. Disney Hyperion, 2020, 80 pages.

Reading Level: Picture Book, ages 8-10

Recommended for: ages 6-12

They couldn’t have been less alike. Samuel Adams was short, blunt, studious, and intense. Also poor. John Hancock was tall, graceful, fashionable, and charming. Also rich. Even in small, parochial Boston, their paths seldom crossed until the mother country slapped a tax on the colonies that Adams deemed unjust. Hancock was resigned to the Stamp Act at first, but violent protests (partly inspired by Adams) raised his concerns above his china teacups and sartorial wardrobe. Samuel Adams saw the richest man in Boston as a strategic recruit for the cause, and so the “revolutionary partnership” was born. With Hancock’s influence and Adams’ ready pen, the patriot cause took shape—and caught the attention of King George. By the time actual shooting started, the pair were already “Most Wanted” by the crown.

The story, covering major events from the Stamp Act to Lexington is well told and the illustrations, in a style just comic enough, are engaging and witty. Back matter includes further detail, along with a timeline, bibliography, and source notes. Also the now-obligatory tsk-tsk that “The origin story of the United States is complex and contradictory. And it is not all to be celebrated.” This is not news; we’ve recognized our faults for some time. They don’t doesn’t invalidate the principles behind the document that John Hancock signed his name to, and they’re still worth celebrating.

Overall rating: 4

Thomas Paine and the Dangerous Word by Sarah Jane Marsh, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. Disney Hyperion, 2018, 78 pages.

Reading level: Picture book, ages 8-10

Recommended for: ages 6-12

“Nobody expected much out of young Thomas Paine.” The son of an English corset-maker could look forward to the same sort of life his father had, except for one factor that made all the difference: his family managed to scrape enough money together to send him to school. His mind flamed with knowledge and ideas and the power of words. After a brief sea career, a failure at corset-making, heady debates in the local Headstrong Club, and a failed marriage, the at-loose-ends craftsman had a fortuitous meeting with Benjamin Franklin. Franklin saw something of a new-world spirit in the talented wordslinger, and wrote a letter of recommendation for Paine to take to America. Once arrived, Thomas plunged into the revolutionary spirit and quickly enmeshed himself in current affairs—mainly, disputes with the mother country. We know where those disputes led, but this picture book underscores the crucial role of a little pamphlet called Common Sense, which gave structure and shape to scattered calls for independence.

Words must be backed up by actions, and Thomas’ words culminated in the Declaration of Independence of 1776: “America had found her voice.”  He was a free-thinker and a deist whose radical bent led him later on to endorse the French Revolution. Eventually he became persona non grata in the States. But the nation owes him a debt for speaking so clearly and convincingly, changing hearts and minds at a crucial moment in history. The same author-illustrator team of Most Wanted breathes life into this important historical figure.

Overall rating: 4 (out of 5)

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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.

1 Comment

  1. The Warren & the World Vol 8, Issue 26 on July 11, 2020 at 3:00 am

    […] For Spacious Skies, Most Wanted, and Thomas Paine and the Dangerous Word feature the promise of the American experiment.Read more […]

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