The Accidental President

How often do the “normal” people and moments in life capture national fascination?  After all, the public and the media like to focus on stories that deviate from the norm, that are bigger than everyday life, and that take the audience away from their typical lives.  However, a person or event occasionally becomes extraordinary by being quite ordinary and yet surprising the world in some unusual way.  Harry S. Truman was one of these people.

The Accidental PresidentIn the biography The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, A. J. Baime provides insight into Truman’s life, career, and the national and international impact of his time in office after FDR dies.  This story is fascinating as it shows how a Missourian with little money and almost no public presence rises to the highest seat of power in the United States.  What makes Truman’s career even more remarkable is that he was extremely ordinary.  Baime writes about Truman and his future wife Bess, “Bess Wallace was everything Harry was not.  She was fashionable, athletic, and popular.  Harry, in his own words, ‘was never popular.  The popular boys were the ones who were good at games and had big, tight fists.  I was never like that.  Without my glasses, I was blind as a bat, and to tell the truth, I was kind of a sissy.  If there was danger of getting into a fight, I always ran’” (44).  Humorously, Baime explains that even though “Harry sat next to Bess Wallace in church school…[i]t took him five years to get up the courage to say hello” (44).  These descriptions sound more like a depiction of Charlie Brown, not future president material.

Despite his ordinariness though, Truman wins against all odds time and time again, and his honesty and hard work appear to have been key to his success.  Also important to Truman’s character is his continuous dedication to his family.  He always makes time to look after and stay in touch with his mother, sister, daughter, and wife.  When his family is most concerned about the huge responsibility that has been thrust on him, Truman is worried about how being president will affect the privacy and lives of his family.

Dewey Defeats Truman headline
Truman surprised the nation by winning the 1948 presidential election and proving newspaper headlines wrong.

In contrast to his unimpressive personality and ordinary origins, Truman’s life is anything but ordinary, and The Accidental President is a fascinating biography.  Baime packs the book with interesting details and narrates events in a story-like manner that makes the biography very readable.  Thanks to Baime’s skillful juggling of places, people, and events, the different scenes of the story tie together smoothly and help the reader grasp what is happening simultaneously around the world.

While the title The Accidental President appropriately captures how unusual Truman’s career turned out to be, I think perhaps a more fitting title would be The Providential President.  As much as people may criticize or disagree with Truman’s policies and decisions, he turned out to be the right man for his hour.  Truman faced difficult decisions and stressful scenarios with courage, honesty, and dedication, and I think succeeding generations should take care before passing judgment on Harry S. Truman.  After all, he had to make some of the hardest choices and deal with some of the greatest challenges any American president has ever confronted, and he did so without the clear support of the American people that an elected president would have had and without the history-making charisma that most world leaders have possessed.  President Harry S. Truman proved a common man could become the leader of a world power and accomplish the extraordinary.


Works Cited

Baime, Albert J.  The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That  Changed the World.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY: 2017.

Celebrate Christmas

The sun shone brightly outside as my grandmother and I browsed the shelves of a little downtown shop.  Suddenly, Grandmama stopped and plucked a paperback book from the top of a shelf.  I leaned over her shoulder and glimpsed an image of a dog and the title – Poor Jack – just as Grandmama opened the book.  The story was a Christmas one.  Much to my surprise, Poor Jack was set in a small town in Louisiana, and was written by a local author, and illustrated by a local artist.  In a minute, we had finished reading the book.  Grandmama and I smiled, and as she set the book back onto the shelf, I tucked it away in my mind for the future.  Seven months later, I was again shopping downtown, this time with Mama, Grandmama, and my sister.  I spied a copy of Poor Jack in an antique shop and showed it to Mama, saying, “See, this is the book I told you about.”  After flipping through the book, Mama decided it would be a good addition to our family’s ever-growing collection of Christmas books.

Collecting Christmas books is an endless task.  There are so many rich or fun or special stories involving this holiday. Here is a list of some of my favorite Christmas books.  For more Christmas literature recommendations, click here.

Devotionals for Christmastime

A Classic Nativity Devotional / compiled by James Stuart Bell

As its subtitle explains, this book is “a collection of timeless Christmas readings.” It includes poems, hymns, and adaptations of sermons by Augustine, Martin Luther, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Milton, and others.

A Classic Nativity Devotional

 

The Dawning of Indestructible Joy: Daily Readings for Advent / John Piper

An excellent book to read during advent.  With each short chapter, John Piper reminds readers of what Christmas truly means to the world and to the Church.

The Dawning of Indestructible Joy

A Graphic Novel

Herobear and the Kid / Mike Kunkel

Herobear and the Kid

Picture Books

The Story of Christmas / from the King James Bible (illustrated by Pamela Dalton)

This book melds the two Christmas stories from Matthew and Luke into one continuous narrative.  Pamela Dalton’s cut-paper artwork creates a beautiful accompaniment to the story of Christ’s birth.

The Story of Christmas

Christmas Is Here / from the King James Bible (illustrated by Lauren Castillo)

A fun book perfect for children with large, cheery illustrations.  It includes a portion of the Matthew Nativity narrative, but uses more pictures than words to tell the story.

Christmas Is Here

Christmas in the Country / Cynthia Rylant (illustrated by Diane Goode)

The story of a little girl’s Christmas with her grandparents in the country.

Christmas in the Country

The Twelve Days of Christmas / illustrated by Gennady Spirin

Gennady Spirin combines the well-known words of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with rich illustrations.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Poor Jack / George Rhymes (illustrated by Ellen G. Howell)

Meet Jack, a dog who hates fireworks, and who lives in a city that loves them. With humorous illustrations and a story in poem form, this is a great book for children.

Poor Jack

The Remarkable Christmas of the Cobbler’s Sons / Ruth Sawyer (illustrated by Barbara Cooney)

A delightful story involving a legendary but mischievous goblin king who visits the three sons of a poor cobbler one Christmas Eve.

The Remarkable Christmas of the Cobbler's Sons

The Wee Christmas Cabin of Carn-na-ween / Ruth Sawyer (illustrated by Max Grafe)

This magical tale, set in Ireland around the time of the Irish Potato Famine, tells the story of Oona Hegarty, a woman whose lifelong dream is to have a home of her own.

The Wee Christmas Cabin

A Short Story

The Gift of the Magi / O. Henry (illustrated by P. J. Lynch)

Combine beautiful illustrations with a beautiful story, and this is what results.  P. J. Lynch’s artwork brings O. Henry’s spectacular story to life.

The Gift of the Magi

Mystery, Murder, and William Monk

the-face-of-a-strangerVictorian London–a dangerous place. When detective William Monk wakes up in a hospital, he can’t remember anything–a carriage accident two weeks previous leaves him without memory. Frightened of what will happen if his superiors realize what has happened–being fired and left to work in a sweatshop–Monk quickly decides to hide his amnesia as best he can while tackling the most challenging case of his career.

A novel with a strong focus on characters, The Face of a Stranger centers on Monk, his police superior Runcorn, and Hester Latterly–a nurse recently returned from Crimea. Monk is faced with finding the murderer of Joscelin Grey–a well-to-do third son of nobility and veteran of the Crimean War. Grey was found dead in his room with his head bashed in–and evidence that the killer had continued beating Grey for some time after his death.

Not only searching for evidence of a murderer, Monk is also trying to piece together his own identity. Unable for the most part to tell others of his amnesia, Monk is left guessing what sort of man he once was and discovering that he’s not altogether fond of the person he once was.

Anne Perry is something of a veteran at mystery novels, and she is very good. The plot keeps the reader guessing throughout while also developing characters that are both realistic and relatable. Two other Perry novels that I also enjoyed: A Funeral in Blue and Southamption Row. I would highly recommend both the William Monk detective series as well as the William and Charlotte Pit detective series.

Reflections on Newbery Books of 2014

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Newbery Medalist

  • Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures: Recommended.  A damaged girl and an odd squirrel fight the establishment. I enjoyed Flora’s biting sense of humor. She’s smart and cynical but still feels like a child. I also appreciated the inclusion of a somewhat present, redeemable mother. In most of DiCamillo’s other novels, the mothers are dead, missing, not well characterized, or useless.

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Newbery Honors

  • Kevin Henkes’ The Year of Billy Miller: Recommended.  Henkes’ characterization of seven-year-old Billy and his family could not have been more perfect. He makes adult readers remember all the little thing about being an “average” grade school kid growing up in a “average” family. And he give children a relatable and sweet story without becoming saccharine or didactic. I look forward to reading this one aloud in a few years.
  • Holly Black’s Doll Bones: Recommended.  I tried Black’s The Spiderwick Chronicles and Tithe and felt underwhelmed. They weren’t bad, just not particularly memorable. I was therefore pleasantly surprised by Doll Bones. Despite the supernatural overtones, the characters and relationships feel true and grounded.
  • Amy Timberlake’s One Came Home: Recommended.  My favorite of the bunch, this historical mystery manages to be both grim and humorous. I genuinely could not predict where Timberlake would take Georgie and Agatha’s story of family discord – and loved her choice of ending.
  • Vince Vawter’s Paperboy: Recommended.  Even before reading the biographical blurb or internet information, I could feel Vawter drawing on his own experiences growing up with a disability in the segregated South. All the relationships (if not all the plot points) feel so believable. Particularly refreshing is the protagonist’s honest questioning of religion and parental responsibilities – and his fairness in his assessments. He does not make snap judgments one way or the other and sees people as people. There may be hypocrisy or disappointment, but he is still charitable and open to learning. Most children’s novels would use grown-ups’ flaws as an impetus for total hostility or rebellion or emo-cry-black-eye-liner-pity-parties, and Paperboy doesn’t. Kudos.

May next year’s list be just as good!

Reflections on Caldecott Books of 2014

Caldecott Medal

For those with question marks over their heads, here is a short explanation of the history behind the medal. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

All caught up?  Good.  Now, on to the individual titles.

  • Brian Floca’s Locomotive: received the medal and deservedly so.  Floca teaches about the science and mechanics involved in a steam engine and the history of the First Transcontinental Railroad at the same time.  The use of second-person usually feels artificial to me, but Floca makes it flow so well.
  • Aaron Becker’s Journey: my favorite of the four.  Becker’s meticulous attention to detail and variety of perspectives tell a wonderful adventure without words.  He also manages to make the journey feel dangerous yet not gruesome.  When does his next book publish?
  • Molly Idle’s Flora and the Flamingo: feels like an animated feature in the best ways.  The characters are expressive and believable without any text.  The only negative I see is the physical book.  With such light, delicate paper for the flaps it will be damaged within a few months.
  • David Wiesner’s Mr. Wuffles!: an original concept impeccably drawn.  A testy cat attempts to catch an aliens’ spaceship while the insects and aliens make First Contact.  This too is a story without text (well, unless you count the aliens’ incomprehensible speech bubbles) that works perfectly.

Usually there’s at least one title that makes we wonder what on earth Caldecott/Newberry/National Book Award Committees are thinking, but not with this stack.  I’d recommend any of the titles to both children and adults.

Robert E. Lee

Robert E. LeeOnce, while working as superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, Robert E. Lee said, “I consider the character of no man affected by want of success provided he has made an honest effort to succeed” (25).  Not many years afterwards, he lived those words out as he “made an honest effort to succeed” in fighting for the Confederate States of America.  Lee not only fought hard, but even when his work was, to put it gently, unsuccessful, he did not regret the choices he had made or see dishonor in the task he had done.  Robert E. Lee was a leader whom nations admired, a general whom soldiers loved, a man whom history immortalizes, and in Robert E. Lee: Virginian Soldier, American Citizen by James I. Robertson Jr., this man and the events of his time live again.

In a concise biography, James Robertson masterfully details Robert E. Lee’s life, from his birth on January 19, 1807, to his death on October 12, 1870.  One sees the opinions of those who encountered Lee and the way in which he earns the respect of both his friends and his enemies.  In war and in peace, Lee was honorable, charitable, compassionate, humble, and discerning.  As one New York City newspaper put it after his death, “In him all that was pure and lofty in mind and purpose found lodgment.  He came nearer the ideal of a soldier and Christian general than any man we can think of” (143).  One of the most important parts of Lee’s life that Robertson focuses on is his life after the Civil War.  Lee kept the best interests of the South and of America at heart in the years succeeding the war.  When offered a tour of Europe, he turned it down.  Book CoverHe saw a different vocation for himself and knew that, as the man his countrymen so admired, he must be the one to lead them in the paths of peace and the restoration of union.  One of Lee’s best and most lasting legacies is the time he spent in his final years serving as superintendent of a tiny college, now known as Washington and Lee University.  Not aspiring to greatness, Lee served in whatever capacity God placed him and dispatched each task as well as he could.  Lee said, “The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, [and] that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged.  It is history that teaches each of us to hope” (140).  Despite the fact that Robert E. Lee suffered grievous defeat during the work of his lifetime, he did not despair, but put his trust in God.

Conquering the Skies

Arctic Tern“On the whole page, there was only one picture.  Of a bird.  I couldn’t take my eyes off it.  He was all alone, and he looked like he was falling out of the sky and into this cold green sea.  His wings were back, his tail feathers were back, and his neck was pulled around as if he was trying to turn but couldn’t.  His eye was round and bright and afraid, and his beak was open a little bit, probably because he was trying to suck in some air before he crashed into the water.  The sky around him was dark, like the air was too heavy to fly in.  This bird was falling and there wasn’t a single thing in the world that cared at all.  It was the most terrifying picture I had ever seen.  The most beautiful…He was so alone.  He was so scared” (19).

In Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt, Doug Swieteck knows that feeling of terror, and his life feels like it’s plummeting, especially when his father loses his job and the Swietecks move from their small, dilapidated house in Camillo, New York, to The Dump (as Doug calls it) in Marysville, New York.  In Doug’s eyes, the future doesn’t look so great in “stupid Marysville, New York.”  Nevertheless circumstances catch Doug by surprise and take him on a flight that involves some plummeting, but a lot of soaring as well.

At the story’s start, Doug is disrespectful, proud, and stubborn.  His first experiment in living involves mouthing off to his elders and being as mean as possible, landing him in After School Detention multiple times.  All in all, he imitates his eldest brother Lucas, whom he despises, quite well.  However, after he meets Lillian Spicer, a brown-haired twelve-year-old who loves reading and haunts the public library, and Mr. Powell, an elderly librarian, Doug’s life changes forever.  He tries a new experiment in living.  The experiment doesn’t proceed smoothly, and despite relapses to former behavior, Doug’s character changes.  He learns that there is more to people than meets the eye.  His teachers, almost of all of whom shun him at first because of his bad family (his brother Christopher is suspected of theft), turn out to be sympathetic and helpful instructors after Doug gives them a chance.  The same happens with the acquaintances Doug makes in town.  Gradually, the people of Marysville stop seeing Doug as a Swieteck or as Christopher and start seeing him as himself.

Okay for Now

Gary D. Schmidt shows how friendship can make a difference in a wrecked life and messed-up family.  Friends can build each other up, bring out the best in each other, and believe in Possibility, seizing it with their eye and overcoming obstacles to grasp it with their hand.  Okay for Now, in a tale that makes you laugh and cry, tells how a broken boy in a broken family with a broken life becomes whole, no longer plummets, and is no longer terrified, but conquers the skies, faces the storms ahead, and flies.