Thursday, February 13, 2014

Honoring Our "Founding Mothers"

Cokie Roberts has long been fascinated by American history. That’s not surprising, given the fact that both her parents served in Congress and that she’s spent her career as a respected Washington journalist. Yet, while volumes have been written about America’s “founding fathers,” Roberts realized some years ago that there was a dearth of information about the women who also were an integral part of our Revolutionary history. So Roberts set out to rectify that, and in 2004 published an adult non-fiction book, “Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation.” The book was well-received and helped open the doors to other books about the women who played key roles in creating the American nation.

 More recently, HarperCollins asked Roberts to use the information from “Founding Mothers” and create a kids’ version of the book. The result is the just-published “Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies” (HarperCollins, $17.99, ages 8-12). Featuring 10 short biographies of key “founding mothers,” including Dolley Madison, Martha Washington and Abigail Adams, this wonderfully-readable book also includes information about lesser-known heroines like Lydia Darragh, who spied on the British, and Deborah Sampson, who dressed as a male soldier and fought in the Revolutionary War for three years before being wounded. These were women who weren’t afraid to take on the quest for independence in their own terms.

Watercolor illustrations by Caldecott Honor artist Diane Goode bring color and lots of flair to the text of “Founding Mothers,” and the artwork also adds another layer of meaning to the text. Goode, for example, includes facsimiles of the signatures of each of the 10 spotlighted women, and her formal “portraits” of them help highlight their personalities.

“Founding Mothers” is published in a picture book format, and the roominess of that format that allows Roberts to pack in lots of information without overwhelming her readers. The book includes a timeline, notes about finding further information and an introductory note by Roberts, who quotes British General Lord Cornwallis as saying during the war: “We may destroy all the men in America, and we shall still have all we can do to defeat the women.”

In a recent telephone interview, Roberts said she was “puzzled” by the publisher’s decision to use the picture book format, noting that her six grandchildren, ages 8-13, “read chapter books. But the publishers kept saying to ‘trust us’ on this, and it certainly worked out – particularly when the pictures are this good!”

Robert said she got “veto power” over the choice of illustrators for her book, adding that she and Goode were allowed to communicate with one another as they worked on it. That’s unusual in the world of children’s book publishing, where publishers deliberately keep authors and illustrators apart in the belief that such separation is best for artistic freedom. Roberts, however, disagrees, saying that “this Chinese wall seems crazy to me. It wouldn’t have been helpful for us.”

While Roberts is obviously an accomplished writer, “Founding Mothers” is her first children’s book and she says it was a challenge to write it. “It was hard to do it in a way that children would find interesting,” she said. “I, of course, was very nervous about how to get these stories into a single page. I think it helped being a broadcast journalist.” Because she’s new at writing for children, Roberts said she was guided by her editors. But there was word that she refused to delete from her “Letter of Introduction” in which she describes the “Founding Mothers” as “feisty and funny and flirty.” The editors disliked the word “flirty” for a children’s book, but Roberts said: “I just insisted on it.”

Asked who were some of her favorite “Founding Mothers,” Roberts replied that “it’s hard to pick one because they were all so different from each other…. Dolley Madison was clearly one of the most charming people who ever lived. She was a total people person, and she reminds me of my mother. So, she’s a favorite…. Sally Jay wrote letters to her sister when she was in Spain and France … and those letters are just fabulous. She’s so funny and smart and she would clearly be someone I’d want to hang out with.”

Overall, Roberts said she enjoyed writing a children’s book and wouldn’t mind trying her hand at another. “If people like ‘Founding Mothers’ and the publisher wants me to write another book, I’d be thrilled.”

For further reading about this period in U.S. history, try a new children's book written and illustrated by Maira Kalman about our third president. Titled "Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything" (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin, $17.99, ages 7-10), this volume features Kalman's signature quirky, colorful artwork and a breezily-written text that highlights Jefferson's prodigious energy and curiosity. This is Kalman's second children's book about a U.S. president; two years ago, she published "Looking At Lincoln." Both books offer a wonderfully humanizing look at American icons for young readers.

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