The Founding Fathers by Jonah Winter,
Illustrated by Barry Blitt, Atheneum, $17.99, ages 5-8
Some books raise more questions than they answer: “What is a duel?” “What is the Boston Tea Party”; “What is the Whiskey Rebellion?”; “What is whiskey?”; “Why did Thomas Jefferson own slaves if he was against slavery?” During my first read through “The Founding Fathers” I had to stop and start so many times I didn’t make it past John Adams (“Why did people call him ‘his rotundity’?”; “Why was he ‘not a fan’ of France?”).
The questions could have been distractions, but they were a part of the experience — just a sign of the book’s highly engaging style: witty, honest, and never patronizing to its audience. The format — think quirky baseball cards — doesn’t hurt. There are portraits and profiles of 14 of the most famous of the Founding Fathers — from George Washington to Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Paine — short bios, a few memorable quotes, and below a mix of mundane facts and stats (height, weight, nicknames, languages mastered, hobbies) and provocative ones (number of slaves owned, followed by “position on slavery”). Barry Blitt’s pen and ink and watercolor portraits of the men — with ruddy cheeks and funny hair — are delicately comic. His style will look familiar; he has drawn more than 80 New Yorker covers.
What emerges — when you finally make it through the whole book — is a sense of these men and their times. Although, as Winter points out, the Founding Fathers sounds like the name of a baseball team or a rock band, it really was a group of passionate, argumentative, deeply flawed, very smart men, many of whom didn’t like each other very much. By breaking down the fusty sounding group Winter brings the individuals — quirky, fierce, and united in their passion to build a country — to life.