History Come to Life
October 27, 2016 § 2 Comments
Hands down, my favorite day last summer was spent with my then eight year old at Ford’s Theatre, otherwise known as The Place Where Lincoln Was Shot. If there’s anything more fun than watching our children learn, it’s learning alongside our children—and that is precisely what happened as JP and I made our way through the narrative of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the hours preceding and immediately following his assassination, and his legacy as it lives on today.
Plugged into our audio tour—the “kid version,” where two middle-school students conversed into our ears about the different exhibits—JP and I were totally riveted: making wide eyes at one another over something that was said, or taking off our headphones for a moment to discuss something further. I felt like a kid in a candy shop, like it was the first day of a new literature elective in college and I was scanning the syllabus for all the new books I would have an excuse to buy.
Midway through the tour, we took a break to lunch down the street at Shake Shack (because duh), and JP looked over his bacon cheeseburger at me and said, “Today is the coolest day ever, don’t you think, Mommy?” Later, as we browsed the gift shop, he added, “I think I want to read every book written about Abraham Lincoln,” and I had to resist dropping to the floor and gushing tears of joy.
It has been six years since we moved to the Washington, DC area, and I wonder if we’ll always feel like tourists. The magnitude of things to do and see here feels nearly insurmountable. But the challenge also appeals to me. In this contentious election season, I am fighting hard to remain optimistic—and, thankfully, around every corner in DC is something to squash (even temporarily) the cynic in me. At every turn, I am reminded of the ideals upon which our country was founded, the courageous and tireless leaders that have come before, and the good and hard work that still lies ahead.
If it wasn’t so darn exhausting, I’d consider pulling my kids out of school and romping around the city every day with them. Because it’s one thing to learn something in a classroom, but it’s another to stand in the face of it.
Instead, we have summer breaks and weekends. Plus, as of a few weeks ago—and ten years in the making—we now have Kathy Jakobsen’s My Washington, DC (Ages 5-10), a picture book introduction to some of the most historic and significant DC landmarks and the history behind them.
This is not the first picture book to take kids on a tour of Washington, DC, but it is arguably the best. Or, at least, it’s the one our family has been holding out for. We have been intimately acquainted with American folk artist Kathy Jakobsen for some time now. Her previous children’s book, My New York, sits atop a shelf in my mother’s closet in Manhattan, waiting to be pulled down each time my kids visit. We have planned entire weekends off this book. Just two weeks ago, when JP and I made our annual fall pilgrimage to the Big Apple, we trudged all the way to the top floor of the American Museum of Natural History to see the giant prehistoric sloth that is mentioned by the young narrator of My New York.
Like My New York, My Washington, DC showcases the city through the eyes of a young girl named Becky, who arrives by train at Union Station with her best friend, Martin, and her artist mother. The three traverse numerous sights on Capitol Hill and The Mall, including the Supreme Court, three Smithsonian museums, The White House, and four of the memorials. The route can be traced on the book’s endpapers, which (as in My New York) comprise a simple but lovely hand-drawn map of the city equally useful to kids and parents.
Along the way, Jakobsen (via our narrator, Becky) has a knack for pointing out details that will surprise and intrigue her child readers: the moon rock available to touch at the National Air and Space Museum (“even though I haven’t been to the moon, I can say I’ve touched it”), or the “whispering gallery” in the National Statuary Hall of the Capitol, where John Adams pretended to be asleep but was “really listening to his enemies talking at the other end of the hall!” (I so want to try that out with my kids.)
Did you know that, at the Library of Congress, kids can visit the Archive of Folk Culture to listen to recordings of American Indian songs and stories (in their tribal languages), as well as a “collection of jump-rope songs sung by sixth-grade girls at a Washington, DC school?” (Planning that right away, too.)
All of these narrative tidbits are monumentally enhanced by Jakobsen’s lavish oil paintings, which are packed with so much detail (not to mention stars and eagles and an orange tabby cat to find on every page) that one could pour over them for hours. I challenge you to find a child who isn’t immediately obsessed. Long after my eyes are crossing, my kids (always up for a game of Where’s Waldo?) will point out Becky in her “I Heart DC” tee. The richly colorful crowds of people, which surround Becky on almost every page, are a fine tribute to the diversity that comprises both the American people and those that vacation here from around the world. (The crowds are, of course, both the blessing and the curse of living here.)
My kids’ personal favorite: a double-page spread showcasing the hundreds of pets that at one time or another have lived at The White House, from the goat that Abraham Lincoln’s son once drove through his mother’s party, to the alligator that John Adams housed in a bathtub after it was re-gifted to him by a French general (I had to look up the details of this last point, as I did many of the animals pictured, but that is half the fun of this book!).
My personal favorite is the fold-up-and-out page of the Washington Monument, which shows on one side the way it looks from afar and on the other the diversity of stones that make up much of the obelisk—engraved stones that were donated by states, countries, tribes, and organizations, after the Washington National Monument Society ran out of money and issued a plea for help (even the Boy Scouts are in there!). ! I remember getting a cursory look at these stones from the glass elevator that took the kids and I down from the top of the monument two years ago. Now that we’ve poured over them in detail, we need to go back and see how many we can spot.
Ornate borders frame many of the illustrations, and Jakobsen rarely misses a chance to incorporate quotations that adorn the walls of the buildings and memorials (“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”). The Star-Spangled Banner, The Declaration of Independence, The Presidential Oath, The Gettysburg Address: all of these are seamlessly worked in, not to mention a spread devoted to The Bill of Rights in its entirety (and which is reproduced inside the book’s cover as well, in case you want to hang it up).
Mind you, the book is not perfect. There are a few bizarre omissions (the paragraph about the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial doesn’t directly mention race, even as it speaks of equality). To JP’s great disappointment, Ford’s Theater is not mentioned at all. Still, most of what’s left out of the book lies in our echoed cries for MORE! MORE! MORE!, as we wish the book would go on for another 35 pages.
With 250 years of history, Washington, DC is, after all, a city that cannot be explored in a single bound. But this book gives us a pretty cool start, don’t you think?
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