Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The House that George Built by Suzanne Slade

The House that George Built by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Rebecca Bond

Rating: 5 stars

Here's what you get when you take me to an adult dinner party: I find a little corner and a fellow bibliophile and discuss children's books for half the night.  Thank you, husband, for putting up with such behavior!  (And, in my defense, it was the parent social for Ben's junior kindergarten class, held right around the time of the annual book fair, and I was talking with the woman who ordered most of the books...)

One of the books the school administer and I talked about was The House that George Built by Suzanne Slade.  I liked the book a lot, but when the kids and I read it we weren't sure if the house of the title was Mount Vernon or the White House.  We visited both this summer, so I was happy they had a frame of reference for each house, but they knew Washington was the only President NOT to live in the White House.  The book kept us guessing--the plans that Washington is looking at in an early illustration resemble the White House more, but on the next page the plot of land he surveys sure looks like the area surrounding Mount Vernon.  Hmm.  But, a few pages later, we knew: the White House.

This is the story of how the White House was built.  We started liking the book a whole lot.

It is two stories in one.  Similar to the G is for Gold Medal alphabet book series, this book has both a cumulative poem and a longer, more informative, nonfiction-y story.  It is, not to point out the obvious, a good spin of The House that Jack Built. A sample of the cumulative rhyme:
This is the brick,
that was baked strong and thick,
that was laid on the foundation,
that was dug for our nation,
that held the design,
that would stand for all time,
that was drawn for the lot,
that great, scenic spot,
for the President's House that George built.
It is fine stuff.  It works really, really well--while the illustrations show the building of a grand house, Suzanne Slade builds her poem.

But the background stuff--the history in the book--makes it even more valuable for teachers and parents alike.  Each page is filled with interesting facts; here are some things I learned from the book:
  • The site on which the White House now resides was originally part of Maryland.
  • Instead of dragging thousands of bricks to the site, two kilns were built on site and used to bake bricks from the clay and sand on the building site.
  • Stone was limited; instead of importing some from England (unthinkable!) he changed the design from three stories to two to keep the stone American-made.
  • (In the notes in the back) Obama and his wife planted a vegetable garden with a whole lot of vegetables, but no beets--Obama doesn't like beets.  (What?! Kiefer and I are big fans of them!)
Please feel free to stop here if you're just wondering whether or not you should buy the book (you should!).  I have to add a few more historical notes because I found them way too fascinating to NOT share with those interested, including my pal Paula.

Paula, an irreplaceable force at Ben's school, told me that she heard the book was inaccurate.  She said, clearly, that L'Enfant designed the White House and James Hoban oversaw the building of it.  This was not the story in the book!  Also, most of the interior was done under John Adams--this much in the book is true to Paula's story, as the picture of a much dismayed Abigail as she moves into a shell of a mansion shows.

In the Author's Note, Slade writes that Washington invited French-born architect Pierre-Charles L'Enfant to draw up plans for the presidential palace.  But his design was too elaborate and too expensive, so he opened a design contest to the public.  He received nine entries.  One was from a man with the fake name "AZ."  Over 100 years later, people finally uncovered facts that solved the mystery of AZ's true identity: Thomas Jefferson.  Washington selected the design by James Hoban, an Irish immigrant.  The two men worked together to improve Hoban's original design.

This book inspires me to learn even more about this fantastic, important historic building.  I definitely think we'll have to take the kids down to the White House soon, though I'll have to explain once again why it is that we can't stroll up to the door to meet President Obama.

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