Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Picturing Politics

I spent most of last week rapt in front of one political speech or another--the Democratic convention offered all kinds of delights for the sometime political junkie. (I don't follow politics as closely as many, but election years do get me going.) As I watched the speeches and the reactions of the crowds, I kept thinking of two picture books I just finished--Big Plans, by Bob Shea (illustrated by Lane Smith), and Madam President, by Lane Smith (also illustrated by the incomparable Lane Smith). In both, we get a child-sized view of the political world.

Madam President offers us a girl moving through her presidential day, from kissing babies to state funerals (a pet frog), photo ops to negotiating treaties (she makes peace between a dog and cat). She selects an admirable cabinet--Mr. Potatohead as Secretary of Agriculture, a sock monkey as Secretary of Naps, and a piggybank as Secretary of the Treasury, for example--and still makes it through a fairly ordinary schoolday (mostly by exercising her veto power, over tuna casserole in the cafeteria and other indignities). Sly visual jokes permeate the pages, from the portrait of Susan B. Anthony on her wall to the books--about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Teddy Roosevelt, among others--under her bed. And under the Frederick Douglass book is what appears to be a copy of Smith's other political contribution this season, Big Plans.

Big Plans leads with a somewhat scary cover image, at least to me in this political climate: a grinning youngster in what appears to be a skunkskin cap treading purposefully atop the globe. He's got big plans--even though, as the story opens, he's sitting in the corner of the classroom, staring at a map. (The visual jokes continue here: the bookshelf next to him includes a U.S. Atlas, a book about rocketry, a collection of tall tales, and a book about the presidency.) As the boy outlines his plans, he dreams bigger and bigger. Enlisting a mynah bird as his second-in-command (and eventually picking up the president as the mynah bird's assistant), he moves from business to politics, politics to space exploration. In my favorite line, he announces that he will "blast off into uncertainty"--and then returns, back to his corner, free to continue exploring his "Big Plans."

If there were an election pitting these two against each other, I'd vote for Madam President, whose heroine appears to me to have a slightly more realistic grasp of the position of president. The "Big Plans" types make me a bit nervous, frankly--but we've got enough of them around, this year, that we may need both books to keep us grounded throughout the coming months.

(I received both books as pre-publication unbound copies from the publisher. Both books are in bookstores now.)

1 comment:

  1. I'll have to check these out; Ben's very interested in the election, and so far we've been reading Grace for President (about an elementary school election), but we need more material!