Lessons from the past: Barbara Kerley talks Presidents and politics (and kids will love it!)
By Lauren on February 16th, 2012
What could be more perfect for an election year than a book that shows how two political opponents can come together to achieve the impossible?
Barbara Kerley’s award-winning picture book biographies have covered a myriad of popular historical figures, from Alice Roosevelt to Mark Twain to Walt Whitman. Just in time for Presidents Day, Kerley is back with Those Rebels, John & Tom, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, an exciting new picture book biography focusing on two of our nation’s founding fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In a starred review, Booklist says, “A worthy addition to the American history curriculum, this is a terrific book to lead the charge in learning about the Revolution, as well as a lesson in how dedicated cooperation can achieve great ends.” And Publishers Weekly says the book is “A witty and wise portrait of strength being born out of difference.”
For a special President’s Day OOM Post, Barbara Kerley stopped by the blog to talk about what she found during her research for Those Rebels, John & Tom and how their story is still relevant today. She says:
Writing Those Rebels, John and Tom was a wonderful opportunity for me to get to know John Adams—the second president of the United States—and Thomas Jefferson—the third president. And nowhere did their commitment to country shine more clearly than early in their careers, as delegates to the Continental Congress.
Tom did not keep a personal daily diary, but I was delighted to find that John did—recording his feelings day by day as he prepared to join the first Continental Congress. And in 1774, as he thought about his upcoming trip to Philadelphia, he was worried.
“I wander alone, and ponder. I muse, I mope, I ruminate,” he wrote. “We have not men fit for the times…I feel unutterable anxiety.”
What caused his distress was the sheer weight of what lay ahead: deciding on the issue of independence.
For most of the delegates, the Continental Congress was the first time they had ever met. John studied “the characters and tempers, the principles and views, of fifty gentlemen, total strangers” to him, and wondered if they could all possibly find a way to work together.
John fretted, and at times he grew impatient, and it was during his times of impatience—complaining to his wife Abigail that their progress was “slow as snails”—that I was struck by the enormity of their task. (And all the more appreciative of their efforts when, in contrast, I considered the state of Congress today…and their difficulty finding compromises that keep the country moving forward.)
The Continental Congress of 1774, after all, started with nothing. They had to decide everything: How should voting take place? How many representatives should be present from each colony? Would voting be based on population or would each colony have only one vote?
And that was just the start. As the decision on independence loomed, the demands grew even greater. In addition to the hours spent debating in Congress, there was all the committee work. In June of 1776, for example, while Tom was busy writing the Declaration, John was serving on 26 committees—everything from how to make enough gunpowder to how to form a navy—prompting him to write to a friend, “I am weary, thoroughly weary.” And yet, he soldiered on.
Meanwhile, Tom faced his own challenge: penning a document in “terms so plain and firm” that it would inspire colonists to embrace the cause of independence and also rally people around the world to America’s side. He did so, brilliantly—in a document that continues to inspire fledgling democracies over 200 years later.
Their commitment is all the more remarkable when you consider the stakes: if America had lost the Revolutionary War, men like John and Tom could easily have been hanged for treason.
John, Tom, and the other members of the Continental Congress are examples of leaders who believed that hard work, compromise, and consensus-building could solve the country’s biggest problems. And they are a timely reminder—in this election year—of how, at its best, our democracy works.
–Barbara Kerley doesn’t look like a rebel, but she likes to ask questions that others don’t. Her award-winning biographies—including What to Do About Alice? and The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy), both illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, and The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins and Walt Whitman: Words for America, both illustrated by Brian Selznick—are consistently praised for their lively prose, meticulous research, and artistic presentation style. Kerley lives in Portland, Oregon. You can visit her on the web at www.barbarakerley.com
No comments yet