The Buck Stops Here Written and illustrated by Alice Provensen Harper & Row. Unpaginated. $17.95. Ages 7-up
BOY, WHERE was this book when we were going through the chore of learning the order of the presidents?
Thomas Jefferson, number Three,
Rigged the Sale of the Century.
Silent Thirty, Coolidge, Cal,
Penny-pincher, Corporate pal.
Alice Provensen has been writing and illustrating children's books for 45 years, and in 1984 won (with her late husband Martin) the prestigious Caldecott Medal for The Glorious Flight; but this is the one that might turn out to be her most enduring triumph. Done in the form of a primer, the buck -- book, rather -- presents the pageant of the American presidency in neat, pictorial vignettes, witty couplets (some of which could have been written by Emily Dickinson at her most whimsical), along with a running time-line that tells what else was going on then, what state was being admitted to the Union, or when the White House was getting its first bathtub with running water. In addition, Provensen provides several pages of fascinating notes in the back about the presidents and their times. If God is in the details, then so is history: During the anti-German sentiment of World War I, hamburgers were re-named "liberty sausages," and the soldiers who drove the bonus marchers out of D.C. during Hoover's administration were commanded by no less than Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton.
In the introduction, Provensen disclaims, "This is not a history book," but I think she's being too modest, for whatever it is, this is a book to drive a young mind to a lifetime's love affair with our country's history and the men who have led it. (Apropos the latter, better make that: "love/hate affair.") She makes it fun, festooning her drawings with the bunting of curious and enlivening facts. There (and in the end-notes) we learn who wrote the Latin that appears on our one dollar bills (Virgil); that John Quincy Adams was the first president to wear long pants to his inaugural; that Martin Van Buren was the first to be born under the American flag; that Tyler, first to succeed by the death of a president, was nicknamed, "His Accidency"; that it took 48 ballots to nominate the unfortunate Franklin Pierce; that the girlfriend of Buchanan, the only bachelor president, OD-ed on laudanum; that West Virginia was formed out of the 47 Virginian counties that remained loyal to the Union; that Grover Cleveland yearned for "pickled herring" and not "the French stuff," (though we do not, surprisingly, learn here that he was also the only president to have been a hangman).
Her paintings are inventive and bold: Herbert Hoover dispensing apples to the unemployed; buckstopping Harry Truman on the red phone against the backdrop of a Fourth-of-July-style mushroom cloud; Nixon holding unspooling reels of tape inscribed with the sad legend of his office. Thankfully, this is not a book to pull its punches.
Best of all, to my mind, are the couplets, wee masterpieces of concision that manage to boil down each president to a felicitious and memorable quiddity. Thus,
Now Madison is number four,
We're fighting Englishmen once more.
And my favorite,
Inconcluded one more war.
If, as test scores seem to indicate, future American school children think that Lincoln invented the luxury sedan and that Hitler was Roosevelt's vice president, don't blame Alice Provensen. Christopher Buckley is the author of the novels "The White House Mess" and the forthcoming "Wet Work," due out in February.