THE REMARKABLE RONALD REAGAN: COWBOY AND COMMANDER IN CHIEF
By Susan Allen
Illustrated by Leslie Harrington
Regnery, $16.95, 36 pages
Shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a children's book arrived at Van Duyn Elementary School in Syracuse, N.Y., about the childhood of the recently slain president.
Even to the unsophisticated third-grade mind, there seemed something amiss in the book's story and art. It depicted a teenaged JFK, disheveled, shirttail hanging out with a piece of toast in his hand getting into a public school bus late that delivered him to a public school.
The book then later showed the young JFK in a messy bedroom, with clothes falling out of dresser drawers as he argued with his best friend, an equally young Mexican boy.
In hindsight, the book was more than ludicrous. Kennedy probably never set foot in a public school in his life, on a school bus in his life and the first time he encountered anybody of Hispanic origins may have been someone tending his father's estate. He himself admitted the Great Depression never touched him, and he never understood its deprivations.
The Kennedy book for children was all a prevarication, though in JFK's defense, his heroic stewardship of a PT boat in the South Pacific in World War II certainly qualified as public transportation.
There is the dubiousness of young George Washington and the cherry tree and then there is the farcical.
Of course, one cringes at the idea of a children's book depicting the life and times of Bill Clinton. It might give new meaning to the phrase "child pornography." History written for children can be dangerous and could earn a "PG" or even "R" rating.
All presidents are subjected to some sort of mythology or revisionism. To wit, the baseless charge that a union of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings produced children. DNA testing only shows her heirs to have Jefferson male DNA and that could have come from any number of Jefferson men who frequented Monticello.
We all know about the young Lincoln doing long arithmetic with a piece of coal on a shovel. Whether this is true, it is certainly more enjoyable and harmless than reading that his father quite probably often beat the young Abe.
Now comes a delightful children's book titled "The Remarkable Ronald Reagan," by Susan Allen, former first lady of Virginia, published by Regnery Kids.
The nice thing is that it is all true. Nothing had to be made up because he really did live a heroic and "remarkable" life, but it does not overlook his setbacks, as in losing the nomination to Gerald Ford in 1976.
The book, written for third- and fourth-graders, breaks no new ground and yet it is groundbreaking in that a modern conservative is being presented as a positive role model to children. The liberal educational establishment has done a good job eviscerating any of the goodness of American conservatism from the history books.
There was a reason Reagan was so popular with young Americans. The focus of his message was always about the future, freedom and opportunity. Plus, he constantly challenged the status quo, and anyone with children knows they live to challenge authority.
In Mrs. Allen's book, children will not read about moral ambiguity, but that hard work and optimism and self initiative and faith were the tools that propelled him ever forward and upward. The story goes chronologically, from his birth in Tampico in 1911 to his death in 2004, but the emphasis is on his many accomplishments, especially, of course, as one of America's greatest presidents.
The book is factually correct and even pegs his divorce from Jane Wyman. But the young reader will see drawing after drawing of Nancy Reagan, and it is clear this was a special marriage by two people utterly in love with each other for more than 50 years. Of all presidents and first ladies, their love may have been the greatest.
There is also a helpful chronology at the back of the book as well as Reagan quotes and samples of correspondence. This book was well thought out and well put together.
A word about the art. Reagan was one of the lucky people who always took a good picture. I've never seen a bad picture of Reagan, even when he wasn't posing. But Reagan is very hard to draw and even harder to sculpt as artists will tell you. There are actually very few really good sculptures of Reagan and yet the illustrator for "The Remarkable Ronald Reagan," Leslie Harrington, did a superb job depicting for children her subject in dignified art form and in varying settings.
The word to describe this book is "charming." Kinda like its subject.
Here is hoping Susan Allen and Leslie Harrington collaborate on other children's books. Here's hoping "The Remarkable Ronald Reagan" makes its way into every grade school in America as the life lessons well told here are life lessons for all.
Craig Shirley, president of Shirley and Banister Public Affairs, is author of "Reagan's Revolution" (Thomas Nelson, 2010), "Rendezvous with Destiny" (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2011), and "December 1941" (Thomas Nelson, 2011).