Ballot Books

Reviewed by Lisa Von Drasek
Sunday, August 24, 2008

MADAM PRESIDENT By Lane Smith | Hyperion. $16.99; ages6 and up

Madam President is a clever picture book portrait of a little girl who fantasizes about what it would be like to be president. Attired in a navy pinstripe pantsuit, she blithely floats through her school day giving executive orders -- "More waffles, please" -- negotiating a treaty between a cat and dog, and naming her cabinet from an assortment of pets and playthings. The girl's deadpan declarations -- "A president has special privileges. One word: Veto!" -- perfectly balance Smith's animated cartoon art. The illustrations are packed with visual jokes, as when a tiny Secret Service kitty, complete with dark glasses, peers out from a double-page spread.

GRACE FOR PRESIDENT By Kelly DiPucchio, Illustrated by LeUyen Pham | Hyperion. $15.99; ages 6 and up

Grace for President is an excellent picture book on the campaign process. During a lesson on the United States presidents, Grace is shocked to learn that no woman has ever been president. When she announces to the class her ambitious plans to seek the highest office, the other students are derisive. But Grace's teacher recognizes a teachable moment and invites another class to participate in a mock election. Each student will represent a state and cast that state's electoral college votes. Grace's rival candidate is the smart, popular and athletic Thomas Cobb. He figures out that if all the boys vote for him and the girls vote for Grace, he will win because the boy's states have more electoral votes. Sweet! Let's just say that all does not turn out as expected.

SEE HOW THEY RUN Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, And the Race to the White House By Susan E. Goodman, Illustrated by Elwood H. Smith | Bloomsbury. $9.95; ages 10 and up

Anyone who needs a clear explanation of how a candidate can get the most popular votes and still lose the election should read See How They Run. (Did you know that Thomas Jefferson thought that the electoral college was "the most dangerous blot on our Constitution"?) Susan Goodman examines American democracy and political campaigns from 1789 to the groundbreaking Democratic primaries between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Goodman includes the formation of political parties and contemporary voting issues, touching on difficult subjects such as election shenanigans, negative campaigning and voter fraud.

The book's archival photos from the Library of Congress, humorous cartoons and informative sidebars hold the reader's attention. In one sidebar called "Getting Better All the Time," the author observes that our democracy isn't perfect, but progressive: "Good News: The United States was the first modern democracy with an elected government protecting the freedom and rights of its citizens. The Bad News: In the beginning, only white men who owned land could vote."

DECLARE YOURSELF Speak. Connect. Act. Vote. More than 50 Celebrated Americans Tell You Why Greenwillow. Paperback. $11.99; ages 12 and up

This collection of short essays is compiled by Declare Yourself, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging 18- to 29-year-old Americans to register to vote. While the title screams tediously boring polemic, here's the shock -- it's not. Yes, some of the thoughts contained are repetitious and obvious: Voting is good, and not voting is bad. Elections can and have been won or lost by one vote. And so on. But, for the most part, the writers passionately express their societal commitment. Poet Maya Angelou delivers a spare exhortation, declaring that "The citizen who does not vote weakens herself and her country, slights her ability to be an American citizen and a citizen of the world." Tyra Banks describes ditching Fashion Week with Christy Turlington to vote for the first time when she was 18. Romeo (the rapper and actor formally known as Lil' Romeo) says he and his friends made a pact to register to vote together when they turned 18. "Voting is the gateway experience to a life of active citizenship," writes Norman Lear, founder of Declare Yourself, and people who register to vote when they are 18 are more likely to continue to vote throughout their lives.

All four of these books are terrific ways to give kids an informed foundation as they embark on this exciting civic journey.

Lisa Von Drasek is the children's librarian of the Bank Street College of Education. She teaches children's literature in addition to reviewing children's books.

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