Mothers-in-Chief

First Mothers
By Beverly Gherman
Illustrated by Julie Downing
(Clarion Books, 2012, New York, $17.99)

Behind every great man is a great woman, the old saying goes. While the great woman is usually assumed to be the man’s wife, his mother might have played an equally formative role in his success. In First Mothers, Beverly Gherman and illustrator Julie Downing offer humorous, sympathetic portraits of the forty-four women who have raised America’s commanders-in-chief.

Gherman takes both her young readers and her subjects seriously. She crisply relates the challenges the various presidential mothers shared – infant and child mortality, disappointing husbands, and a world in which women who defied convention risked censure and most widows had to remarry to secure a decent life for their children. However, despite their similarities, the women constitute a diverse group. Those from hardscrabble backgrounds toiled so that their children could enjoy a better life: Maria Van Buren worked in a tavern, Polly Johnson was a maid and laundress, and Hannah Milhous Nixon baked fifty pies a day. Others, including Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy and Sara Delano Roosevelt, were very much at home in political circles. Some mothers were doting, some were critical, and most transmitted a strong work ethic and opinions to their offspring. With its look at ordinary life, First Mothers is as much an introduction to social and women’s history as it is a collective biography.

Julie Downing’s illustrations should delight young readers. The women’s attire and surroundings suggest their era, position, and personality. Some profiles also include short cartoon strips about the women’s relationship with their most famous children. And here, as in life, there is escaping the past: the most outspoken presidential moms, Mary Ball Washington and Sara Delano Roosevelt, appear in other profiles to criticize the other mothers and their sons. Even the presidential seal gets the mom treatment in the book’s frontispiece as Downing has bestowed a cap, knitting needles, baking tools, and a pie on the eagle.

First Mothers accomplishes what many children’s biographies aspire to do: it links the personal and the political and identifies the human interest in history in a way that should engage even reluctant readers. Parents and educators will find themselves alternately moved, amused, and inspired by the women’s stories.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

 

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