Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Ghosts of the White House


When Cheryl Harness visited the White House with her niece Sara, she imagined what it would be like for one of the former presidents to take her on an inside tour. 

My edition of Ghosts of the White House includes the presidents through Bill Clinton, but an updated edition including the forty-third president has been published. 

The book begins with Sara and her elementary school class arriving at the White House for a field trip. As they begin their tour, Sara is whisked into a painting of George Washington, who then guides her through the different rooms and introduces her to the past presidents. Each page is illustrated in great detail, showcasing rooms such as the Treaty Room, the Blue Room, and the Oval Office. 

As more of the presidents join in Sara’s “tour,” they each tell her some tidbit of their time in office. A short paragraph about each president is also included in the sidebars:
President Kennedy found out that the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) was putting missiles aimed at the U.S. in Cuba, only ninety miles from Florida. JFK forced the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, to change his mind, but there nearly was a nuclear war in this ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’  (p. 37).
The book is full of information, and the word balloon format makes it read like a graphic novel. 

Ghosts of the White House is better suited for older kids to read independently, because its style makes it awkward to read aloud. 

If you have a reluctant reader, this book would be a less intimidating way to introduce them to some presidential and United States history, and it might inspire them to further reading. My reluctant reader will eagerly devour comics and graphic novels, so I am always on the lookout for resources that will interest him.

Highlights:

  • The two-page timeline is a visual feast. I wish it were poster-sized so that I could post it on our wall.
  • An incredible amount of information is packed into this book, including quotes, dates, historical events, and other trivia.
  • The pictures are very detailed, and each time I look at a page, I notice something new. Kids who like “I spy” type books will enjoy studying the pages of this one.
Things to consider with younger kids:

  • Some parents may not be comfortable with the premise of the presidents appearing as ghosts. Although they do not look scary or ghost-like at all, the idea of them being ghosts is the basis for the storyline. Sara asks, “You guys do look way better than in your pictures, but…are you REAL? Are we ghosts?” George Washington tells her, “WE are, but not YOU.” At the end of the book, Sara finds herself standing beside the painting with her group, as the tour guide picks up where he left off when Sara entered the painting at the beginning. It is as if the whole experience was in her imagination, after all.
  • Some of the material may be frightening for younger kids, such as details about assassinations and natural deaths of some presidents, and details about historical events such as war.
  • The presidents do not appear in chronological order, which may be confusing for some readers.
  • Some of the trivia that is presented has an undertone of the author’s bias. This is not blatant, but some things presented as fact are actually the author’s opinion, such as with George Bush:  “During his time in office . . . Americans became less confident about their economy” (p. 44).

Overall, Ghosts of the White House is a fun book. The colorful illustrations will interest visual learners, the format will interest both reluctant readers and presidential trivia buffs, and kids will learn many facts about American history. 

As with her other children’s books, Cheryl Harness’ research is evident through her painstaking attention to detail. During election season, this would be a nice book to have on hand.

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