“Grover Cleveland, Again!,” the first children’s book by filmmaker Ken Burns, was published last month and quickly became a bestseller. Named for a memory game that Burns has played with his daughters about the order of the 44 U.S. presidents, the book presents an engaging mix of the leaders’ accomplishments and shortcomings. Written for readers 10 and older, it also makes one wonder whether all presidential children are created equal. Some have been left out.
The layout gives each president a double-page spread that includes a roll call of parents, siblings, spouses, children and pets. Thomas Jefferson’s children are listed as “Martha (‘Patsy’) and Mary (‘Polly’)” and “three daughters and a son who died in infancy.”
The four children of Sally Hemings who survived into adulthood are omitted, even though DNA tests and extensive documentation have convinced reputable historians that Jefferson was their father. Burns and his collaborators responded to a question about this omission with a statement about editorial choices in children’s books on sensitive subjects. It concludes:
“The book references the personal flaws and poor choices made by so many of our presidents: Jackson and Native Americans, Wilson and racism, Jefferson and slavery, Pierce and alcoholism, even Johnson’s aggressiveness for example. A discussion of sex lives was, however, consciously avoided. We did not mention Harding’s illegitimate child. Nothing is said of JFK’s affairs or the speculation that Buchanan may have been gay. Like Jefferson, Tyler and William Henry Harrison were both believed to have had children with their slaves. Many other presidents are believed to have had sexual affairs with slaves. We chose to leave this out, not because people shouldn’t know, but because ‘Grover Cleveland, Again!’ is not the right venue and its readers are not the appropriate audience.
“With regard to sexual controversies, there were a few things we chose not to avoid. We refer to Clinton’s lying about something in his personal life and acknowledge Cleveland’s financial support of a child born to an unmarried woman (but do not explicitly mention the drama of who the father was). Cleveland publicly recognized his connection to the child, and Clinton’s impeachment proceedings were a major part of his time in office.”
Children’s book authors have no industry-wide guidelines to follow; each writer, editor and publisher must figure out a suitable approach to subjects that might be difficult for children to understand — or for parents to explain. As it happens, a forthcoming picture book offers a stark contrast in depicting Jefferson’s children with Sally Hemings.
In “My Name Is James Madison Hemings” (Schwartz & Wade), Jonah Winter not only names all of Jefferson’s children with Sally Hemings, he encourages young readers to consider the perspective of Hemings’s third child. Drawn from the historical record but fictionalized to fill in narrative gaps, which Winter discusses in an author’s note, the book is aimed at 5- to 9-year-olds.
Winter, who has written more than 30 children’s books, explained via email his wish to convey a fuller picture of American history than young readers are routinely given. He thinks children “can handle so much more than most adults think they can. They know so much already. And when we try to protect them from difficult truths, we insult their intelligence and stunt their spiritual and moral growth. Who are we really protecting? Ourselves, of course — and our romantic notions about the ‘innocence of childhood.’ ”
In trying to promote both knowledge and empathy for others, Winter supports an open discussion of American injustices. Otherwise, he says, “we are creating another generation who will simply perpetuate our problems rather than solve them.”
Abby McGanney Nolan writes regularly about children’s books for The Washington Post.
By Ken Burns. Illustrated by Gerald Kelley
Knopf. 89 pp. $25