Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

America's most famous home

If the Walls Could Talk: Family Life at the White House

Written by Jane O'Connor

Illustrated by Gary Hovland

Simon & Schuster, 48 pp., ages 6-9, $16.95

The Revolutionary John Adams

By Cheryl Harness National Geographic, 48 pp., ages 8-12, $17.95

D Is for Democracy: A Citizen's Alphabet

Written by Elissa Grodin

Illustrated by Victor Juhasz

Sleeping Bear, pp., ages 7-12, $16.95

In this month of political debates, spin and counterspin, election promises, and threats, children who may be looking on in bewilderment as the grown-ups pick on each other can turn to several new books about the American political process. They might even help make sense of the tumult around them.

Perhaps the most charming of them is ''If the Walls Could Talk: Family Life at the White House," a thorough and lively inside history of the White House, both the edifice and the goings-on within it, from the time of John and Abigail Adams, its first tenants, when ''the roof leaked; most windows had no glass . . . there was also an outhouse that could accommodate three people," to Jackie Kennedy's guidance of the White House ''into a place of culture and beauty, restoring rooms with furniture and belongings of past First Families" -- presumably not the outhouse.

Each first family added to the life of the White House. James Polk replaced candles and oil lamps with gas lamps. Millard Fillmore installed a gas stove in the kitchen -- ''but no one knew how to use it." Benjamin Harrison introduced electric lights; however, the family didn't like to touch the switches ''because of the shocks." The hefty William Taft had a special oversize bathtub installed, while schoolchildren raised money to build an indoor pool so Franklin D. Roosevelt, the White House's longest-dwelling president, might exercise.

There are stories, too, of the first children. Lincoln's sons brought pet goats upstairs into the bedrooms. Ulysses S. Grant stargazed on the roof with his son Jesse, while Teddy Roosevelt's children preferred to ''sled down the stairs on cookie trays, walk on stilts through the hallways, roller-skate in the East Room, and shimmy up the flagpole."

Though the book declares itself for ages 6 to 9, its appeal extends to children much older. Each full-color page features one president, with pleasantly cartoony and lively illustrations of the house and its tenants. Harry Truman called the place ''haunted, sure as shootin'," and Herbert Hoover's wife found it ''as bleak as a New England barn." Much has been said about the White House (''A giant fish bowl with spotlights," said Richard Nixon's daughter Julie), but perhaps nothing so poignant or timely as what John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail. Those words are now carved into the mantel of the state dining room: ''May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof." I'll say amen to that.

On Adams: The last few years have brought a spate of books for adults concerning this American Revolutionary hero, including David McCullough's prize-winning ''John Adams." Now Cheryl Harness adds a strong children's biography to the mix, ''The Revolutionary John Adams." Harness creates a lively portrait of the ''intense, cranky, warm, heart-on-his-sleeve John Adams," the man ''eternally bookended and overshadowed by tall, glamorous Virginians": George Washington, of course, and Thomas Jefferson.

Thanks to Harness's skills as researcher, prose writer, and illustrator, Adams steps vividly forward to claim some of the attention he deserves. She describes him ''fizzing with 'total and complete happiness' " at Harvard at age 15; fervently courting his ''dear girl," Abigail; moving his law office and family into the ''bubbling pot of political excitement" of Boston, 1767, and from there straight into the heart of Revolutionary-era American politics.

Adams lived through the tumultuous birth of this nation, surviving personal tragedies and loss, almost constant danger to life and limb, and repeated long separations from the family he adored. He served as vice president to Washington, a post he described as ''the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived." He won the next presidential election, in 1796, against Thomas Jefferson, who according to law became his vice president, a sensible solution, though fraught with potential conflict. ''Mr. Adams is vain, irritable, stubborn," Vice President Jefferson declared. All their lives, Jefferson, the Democratic-Republican ''Pen," and Adams, the Federalist ''Voice," had at it. Adams lost the next election to Jefferson, and the family gratefully fled to retirement in Braintree. There Adams and his old adversary Jefferson began an exchange of more than 150 letters. Both men died on the Fourth of July, l826, though Adams did not know it. ''Thomas Jefferson survives," he whispered on his deathbed. And now, thanks to some splendid bookmaking, so does he.

''D Is for Democracy: A Citizen's Alphabet" takes us through the makings of American government, from A, for ''amendment," to Z, for ''Zeitgeist." Author Elissa Grodin packs a great deal of useful information into each double-page spread, and here, more than usual, the founding mothers, women, and minorities who helped build this nation are acknowledged. The 19th Amendment, giving women the vote, ''was introduced to Congress 118 times and it took 30 years to pass into law." The famous 1955 boycott of the segregated Montgomery, Ala., buses lasted 381 days before the bus company agreed to the demands of the black people who walked rather than submit to injustice.

Grodin shows that democracy can be hard work. She includes stories of young people whose engagement helped change the nation, and asks questions to include young readers in the ongoing debate that is America. Victor Juhasz's illustrations range from political cartoon-style to vivid portrait. His biographical note says ''D Is for Democracy" is his first children's book in over 20 years. I hope we will not wait so long for his next.

Liz Rosenberg's ''I Just Hope It's Lethal," an anthology of poems for teenagers co-edited with Deena November, is due out from Houghton Mifflin in 2005. She teaches creative writing at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives