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A White House With Many Stories

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

It's easy to think of the White House as another of Washington's chalky monuments: an impersonal, 208-year-old structure of brick and stone.

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But that would be wrong, as a new book by 108 (!) writers and illustrators proves. "Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out" reminds readers that it is not just a house but a home. The writers of this book, which took 10 years to put together, use essays, short stories and poetry to tell tales of the White House and its residents, showing how the building is really made of flesh and bone.

The book is filled with a variety of writing styles. Some stories are authors' personal accounts of their experiences at the "people's house." Others are little-known tales about presidents, exceptionally well told. Still others are historical fiction in the best sense: Even though the conversations or actions might be made up, the lessons never are.

The other fantastic thing about this book is the writers. Jerry Spinelli, Patricia McLaughlin, Walter Dean Myers, Jane Yolen: If you don't find one of your favorites in the pages of this book, we'll be surprised. We think after you look at this book, you'll look at the home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in a whole new way.

Richard Peck (author of "A Long Way From Chicago" and "A Year Down Yonder"). Okay, how much do you know about William Henry Harrison? If you said, "He was the ninth president," we're impressed. But we can bet you don't know the sidesplittingly funny -- and true -- story about President Harrison that Peck recounts. It involves a milk cow and the White House; need we say more?

Kate DiCamillo (author of "Because of Winn-Dixie" and "The Tale of Despereaux"). The creator of those beautiful books comes through with a touching tale called "In Early April" about Abraham Lincoln and Willie, the son he lost. This short work of fiction carries with it truths about love and loss that you can take with you for the rest of your life.

Jane Yolen (author of "The Pit Dragon Chronicles," "Briar Rose" and literally hundreds of other books for all ages). Her poem imagines a conversation between the White House's first residents, John and Abigail Adams. In alternating stanzas, John lists everything that's wrong with the house, while Abigail sees only its charm and possibilities. It is a reminder that in a different time (like today), Abigail Adams could have made a terrific president.

Linda Sue Park (author of "A Single Shard" and "When My Name Was Keoko"). Her story tells of a more modern president, Harry Truman, and how his love for the piano almost led to the destruction of the White House!

Meg Cabot (author of "The Princess Diaries" and "Jinx" and about, like, a bazillion other books). The writer recounts, as only she can, the story of how Dolley Madison saved the famous portrait of George Washington when the White House came under attack. Even if you know the story, Cabot's take on it is a hoot.

Walter Dean Myers (author of "Monster" and "Scorpions"). You can't read anything by Myers without being challenged to think in new ways, and so it is with his essay about the slaves who helped build the White House. It's an interesting thought in a year when a black family might soon call the White House "home."

-- Tracy Grant

Download audio clips of authors telling their White House stories.


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