Democracy Dies in Darkness

Books

Talking to kids about the Constitution and other best books for young readers

By Abby McGanney Nolan, Kathie Meizner, Mary Quattlebaum

December 5, 2017 at 2:41 PM

“Fault Lines in the Constitution,” by Cynthia and Sanford Levinson (Peachtree/Peachtree )

It may be surprising that a nonfiction book for kids about a venerated, centuries-old document contains some of the doomsaying of a dystopian thriller. In Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Framers, Their Fights, and the Flaws That Affect Us Today (Peachtree, Ages 10 and older), authors Cynthia Levinson and Sanford Levinson argue that elements of the current political climate can be traced back to the Constitution, which has left us ill-equipped to deal with future threats to our nation's liberty and stability. The book provides plenty of evidence that the compromises made seemed necessary to bind the independent states into one semi-harmonious entity. But the authors, one of whom is a legal scholar, explore how the Constitution's flaws have led not only to the Civil War but also to partisan gridlock, voter apathy and disenfranchisement. As with most dystopian thrillers, though, the Levinsons provide some dim glimmers of hope. For each instance of political malpractice, such as gerrymandering and taxation without representation, they point to systems used by other countries and states that may be superior to our own. It's possible that this bracing book will prod young readers to get involved in amendment-making, in order to form a more perfect Constitution.

Related: [Best children’s books of 2017]

“The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” by Jerry Pikney (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers/Little, Brown Books for Young Readers )

A green, sunlit hillside beckons to three billy goats perched on the rocky cliffs on the other side of a river. There is a bridge over the river, but guarding it is a large, very unattractive troll, who threatens the animals when they start across to taste the green grass. Caldecott Medalist Jerry Pinkney's richly illustrated take on this favorite Norwegian tale, The Three Billy Goats Gruff (Little, Brown, Ages 3-7) is witty, dramatic, and delightful. Pinkney, working in pencil and watercolor, is a master at creating animals that look like just what they are — in this case, a herd of goats in varied colors — with expressions that suggest humanlike cleverness and determination. Each goat, smallest to largest, has a particular and individual personality. So, too, has the greedy, bloated-looking troll, whose outsize, bullying demand, "Who's that trip-trapping over my bridge?" and threats to gobble up the goats will sound deliciously menacing to young listeners. Of course the troll is no match for the billy goats, and he soon gets a satisfying comeuppance. In a twist on the old story, a perfect fairy-tale fish — huge, with misty green and gray scales, spiky fins, and massive teeth — threatens to swallow the troll. The troll makes it to safety — on the rocky side of the river — where he grudgingly begins to build quite a nice hut of boulders. Pinkney offers an encouraging final scene to the story on the endpapers, a gift to his readers in this terrific variation on a classic.

“The Real McCoys,” by Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr (Imprint/Imprint)

Moxie McCoy, a "one-person wrecking ball of problem-solving fury," is on the case in The Real McCoys (Imprint, Ages 8 to 12), the first book in an ingenious new series. Husband-and-wife team Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr take the leap from popular picture books ("Everywhere, Wonder," "Babies Ruin Everything") to a middle-grade novel as quick moving as the fourth-grade detective herself. When the school mascot, a toy owl, goes missing, brash, impulsive Moxie begins interrogating possible suspects, including her tidy, tooth-obsessed nemesis and a nerdy young artist. She dismisses the insights of her observant little brother Milton in favor of sleuthing tactics from her favorite mystery series, often to comical effect. Moxie deals with obstacles (tricky spelling test) and red herrings (chewed-on pencil) with panache only to discover that her long-suffering principal is less than pleased with her frequent reports. Catching the owl thief proves impossible, till Moxie discovers an unexpected partner. Swanson's text and Behr's illustrations create an innovative reading experience that surprises and delights. Wordplay, witty descriptions and visual jokes abound. Just two examples: Moxie considers yummy guacamole "an avocado that fulfilled its destiny," and an illustration slyly references Edvard Munch's expressionist painting "The Scream." Readers will close this whodunit eager for the next one, "Two's a Crowd," which comes out next fall.

At 11 a.m. on Sat. Dec. 9, Cynthia Levinson and Sanford Levinson will discuss "Fault Lines in the Constitution" at the William G. McGowan Theater, National Archives, 700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

young readers

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