Books for Inauguration Day

This historic Inauguration Day has inspired me to gather up a few of the best children’s books on American history. Check them out (the library’s open today) and share them with your family while you watch the festivities on television.

          Jennifer Armstrong knows it’s the “story” in “history” that attracts kids. In “The American Story” she’s collected a hundred true stories, briskly told and illustrated with realistic watercolors by Roger Roth. Reading the book is like eating a bowl of peanuts – you want just one more, and before you know it you’ve read them all.

Among the less known but fascinating stories she tells are the great molasses flood that covered Boston’s North End with a sticky mess and knocked buildings off their foundations in 1919; the murder case that helped establish Abraham Lincoln’s reputation as a lawyer; and the shipments of bananas that rotted on the docks of New York in 1804 because no one knew whether they should cook them, peel them, or give them to the cows (by 1905, they were popular enough to be called “the poor man’s fruit”). This will make fine family reading for kids from about eight years old and up.

In Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley’s “Places in Time, A New Atlas of American History,” kids will learn the stories behind twenty American places. Cahokia was one of the largest cities in the world at its height around 1200, but chances are most children have never heard of it. Spread out on the plains near present-day St. Louis, Cahokia was a mound city that depended on plentiful corn harvests for its wealth. Randy Jones’ detailed illustrations show an immense earthen pyramid surrounded by wooden houses, bustling workers, and the bends of the Mississippi River.

Also described are a hacienda in 1823 Taos, a fort on the Oregon Trail in 1849, and a 1953 development in suburban California. Details were drawn from primary sources like oral histories, old maps and drawings, and contemporary accounts.

Kids can relive American history with Lynn Kuntz’ “Celebrate the USA, Hands-on History Activities for Kids.” Read about Benjamin Franklin’s musical invention, an instrument that he called a glass armonica, and then line up your kids, eight crystal drinking glasses, a stainless-steel spoon and a pencil and let them have a ball making music. If you’d rather preserve your crystal for the grandchildren, how about making a liberty wind sock out of an oatmeal box, some glue, paper, and yarn? Most activities should keep eight- to ten-year-olds busy while they watch the inaugural parade.

The beauty of our country is celebrated in Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” illustrated by Kathy Jakobsen and packaged with a read-along CD. Detailed oil paintings stretch across each double page spread, depicting snowy plains, fruit trees in bloom, glittering cities, and gleaming beaches. 

But along with his paean to our country’s natural beauty, Guthrie called us to fulfill the promise of America for everyone: “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people;/ By the relief office I seen my people;/ As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking./ Is this land made for you and me?” Succeeding stanzas assure listeners that if we work together we can all make a difference in this land. As the newly inaugurated president would say, “Yes, we can!”

First published in the 1/20/09 Free Lance-Star newspaper.