John F. Kennedy used to say that every mother wants her child to be president, but without becoming a politician. Here is a nifty little book deftly written and laced with light humor that introduces very young readers to the 42 politicians who have become president of the United States. (Readers ignore the references on page 42 and on the dust jacket that reduce the number of presidents by one.) So You Want To Be President? is loaded with many other facts (that are, in fact, factual), most of them notable, others fascinating, if obscure. The pages are filled with charming anecdotes and art about the lives, administrations, families, likes, dislikes, and even the pets of our national chief executives.

In the past Judith St. George has given us numerous children's books of both fiction and non-fiction. Here once again she has the good judgment not to "write down" to her youthful readers. She helps them (and possibly their cynical elders) understand that while many of our leaders deserve to be considered heroes, all of them were human, and some had character flaws. She answers the titled question with balance and without a trace of partisanship. And she wisely leaves to serious historians all the stories and rumors about marital infidelity.

Youngsters (and oldsters) will find the collection of incidental intelligence about our presidents engaging: good things and bad things about sitting in the Oval Office; how different presidents felt about the job; the number born in log cabins; the coincidence of some presidential first names; the ages and sizes of others.

Beyond the alluring trivia, the hidden value of such a book is that the collection of selected data artfully related inevitably will prompt questions of parents: Mom, what is an impeachment? Dad, why was Warren G. Harding one of the worst presidents? Grandpa, why was Abraham Lincoln one of the best? Grandma, when will we have a woman or African-American president? Or vice president? Why was no Catholic elected for more than 170 years? The saddest and most puzzling question of all: Why were four of our presidents shot to death by assassins? Questions predictably will create family conversations, perhaps even research, about how those who have held the highest office in the land came to win it and serve in it. For children, parents, and politicians, that sort of discourse offers a worthwhile win-win-win learning experience.

The collection of humorous anecdotes enriches that experience: William Henry Harrison walking to market with a shopping basket over his arm; the disgruntled voter hurling a head of cabbage at William Howard Taft; Abraham Lincoln's cryptic answer to critics who said he was two-faced ("If I am two-faced would I wear the face I have now?"); the horse upstairs in Teddy Roosevelt's White House; John Quincy Adams, while swimming, losing his clothes to a woman journalist who wanted an interview; William McKinley, mortally wounded, trying to stop a mob from harming his assassin.

From cover to cover the story line is graphically enhanced by the imaginative illustrations of David Small. His versatile caricatures of the presidents in diverse and unlikely settings make the book all the more fun.

His enchanting depictions range from comic to melancholic: There is an obese President Taft hoisted naked above his gigantic bathtub. There is a jigging President Wilson, dancing solo to the music of an orchestra that includes an unlikely piano duet of Richard Nixon and Harry Truman (with Thomas Jefferson on the violin), Chester Arthur on the banjo, and Bill Clinton on his saxophone. There is an angry President John Quincy Adams trapped in his swimming hole. There is the former tailor, Andrew Johnson, fitting the former actor, Ronald Reagan, for a suit of clothes.

But there also is the stooped profile of a profoundly contemplative Lincoln, perhaps pondering the war or emancipation. And another of an unhappy, impeached Clinton trailing an unhappier, resigned Nixon down the shadowed steps from the Lincoln Memorial.

In the back of the book there is a chronological listing of all the presidents (42, count 'em) with brief, interesting thumbnail profiles of each one.

Nitpickers may question some of St. George's generalizations: Did FDR really provide soup for the depression hungry; should she have said that presidents always "dress up" when there are photographs of President Carter delivering television chats in a sweater and many other of pictures Presidents Clinton, Ford, Eisenhower, and Taft in golfing attire? Should she have given kids the impression that citizens named James or people born in log cabins have better chances than other Americans to become president? If there are blanks between the lines (and there must be in children's small books on large subjects) let history books or better still, parents fill them in.

In the end St. George appropriately recites the 35-word presidential oath for her readers, then quotes Lincoln's line, "I must do the best I can and bear responsibility of taking the course I feel I ought to take." Our best presidents, she tells us, have tried to do just that and the best also asked more of themselves than they thought they could give.

She concludes with a drum-rolling endorsement of them: "They had the courage, spirit and will to do what they knew was right. Most of all, their first priority has always been the people and the country they served." Young readers will come away from So You Want To Be President? with the clear perception that the presidency is a tremendously important and challenging office, well worth seeking. In an age of cynicism about politicians and presidents that is a message that needs to resonate with the very young and those not so young.

John L. Seigenthaler is the founder of the First Amendment Center and has hosted the PBS-TV book show A Word on Words for 30 years.

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