Award-winning author Beverly Gherman has penned children’s biographies of artists, writers, and presidents. Earlier this year, she published First Mothers, a collective picture-book biography of the presidents’ mothers. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about women’s history and presidential parenting.
Kidsbiographer: First Mothers must have been a time-consuming project: in your author’s note, you report the research process took three years. Can you tell me a little bit about how you approached this monumental task?
Beverly Gherman: Julie (Downing) and I read as much as we could about the presidential mothers. We felt it was imperative to have
factual information about each of them, and we wanted our information to be accurate. I read whole books about some of the Mothers: Barbara Bush, Rose Kennedy, Mrs. Lillian Carter, Sara Delano Roosevelt. I read excerpts from other books, then shared them with Julie who drew her own samples from books and articles, showing the outfits of the day, the type of writing material they used, prams they used for their children, the type of homes they lived in, and the work they did.
Kidsbiographer: During your research, you must have uncovered numerous facts and anecdotes about the presidential mothers. Which women or topics were most difficult to cover, and how did you approach these subjects?
Beverly Gherman: It was hard to capture Mrs. Truman’s personality. She had a lot of energy and she shared that quality with her children, encouraging them to be as active as possible and giving them a lot of freedom. Julie’s scenes were as accurate as possible. You felt as though you were racing across the prairies with her.
Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite aspects of First Mothers is its look at women’s lives throughout American history: it’s an introduction to social and women’s history as well as a collective biography. What lessons about women’s history do you hope kids will take away from the presidential moms’ stories?
Beverly Gherman: Abigail Adams’ story is important because played she played a prominent role in American history even though her life shows the restrictions women faced during her lifetime. She was a strong mother who emphasized her children getting an education. While John (her husband, John Adams, the second president) spent time with John Quincy (her son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president) in France, John Quincy learned to speak French like an expert. Abigail resented the fact that she had never attended school, but she spent a great deal of time reading from her father’s library. At night she wrote John by candlelight and told him about British ships nearby in Braintree, Massachusetts, and how the children were growing up and helping her on the farm. She had strong opinions about current events, which she never hesitated to share with her husband.
Kidsbiographer: Based on your research, which First Mother’s parenting style do you most admire?
Beverly Gherman: I appreciated Mrs. Kennedy encouraging her children to discuss politics at the dinner table. She also expected them to earn their allowance. She felt that being a parent was one of the most important tasks she faced, and she took it quite seriously. She expected her children to do well at school and to help out at home.
Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about First Mothers?
Beverly Gherman: Throughout the book, Mary Ball Washington makes comments about many of the other mothers. We thought she would add humor and give our readers some interesting ways to look at the women. Young readers tell us she made them laugh and made them think about the other mothers in the books.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming writing projects?
Beverly Gherman: I am finding it difficult to select the next project. After getting to know forty-four individual mothers for First Mothers, it’s not as challenging to learn about a single individual, as I usually do, but I am continuing to search for the right person.