It’s always a challenge to find excellent historical picture books. All too often, fun is sacrificed on the altar of historical accuracy, or, on the other hand, you’ll find an engaging, kid-friendly book that’s just too simplistic to capture the nuances of the era. I’m delighted to report that Suzanne Tripp Jurmain’s book on one of my favorite subjects, the unlikely friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, strikes the perfect balance of fact and fun.
Jurmain does a fantastic job of explaining the differences between Adams and Jefferson in a way that kids can understand, without oversimplifying their political philosophies. Take this one-sentence description of Jefferson’s fears about a centralized government: “In fact, said Tom, an extra-superstrong and bossy president might even try to make himself a king!” Larry Day’s hilarious illustrations are as essential to understanding the two presidents’ very different personalities as the text: my favorite illustration shows the two men in the middle of a chess game, Adams red-faced and speechifying, and Jefferson imperiously trying to shush him.
Jurmain also weaves actual quotes from the era into the story, which I love. What better way to dispel the notion that history is a dry and boring subject than to quote the Federalists calling Jefferson “’a scoundrel’ who ate ‘fricasseed bullfrogs?’” This is only one of many colorful insults found throughout the book, which definitely puts our modern contentious politics into perspective.
Although Worst of Friends is loaded with valuable information about the colonial period, the friendship between the two Founding Fathers is definitely the crux of the story. Here were two men who were opposites in every way, who lived through years of bitter political and personal opposition, and yet managed to reconcile and end their lives as dear friends. If that isn’t an encouraging message for any time, I don’t know what is.
Great as a classroom read-aloud, or a present for the little history expert in your life!
Worst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the True Story of an American Feud by Suzanne Jurmain, illus. by Larry Day, Dutton Children’s Books, ages 7-10