Which president had a sign on his desk that read, “The Buck Stops Here?” Hint: He led the United States from 1945-1953. For 20 years, Alice Provensen’s book, named for that slogan, has led young readers through a series of rhyming couplets and iconic imagery that characterized each president. (Answer: “Truman, Truman, Thirty-three, / Radiated energy.”) Now, in this 20th-anniversary edition, Provensen adds George Bush (41), Bill Clinton (42), George W. Bush (43) and current and 44th president, Barack Obama.
The Buck Stops Here was the first book that Provensen created without her co-artist and husband, Martin Provensen, who died in 1987. During their 43 years together, they wrote and illustrated many books, including the 1984 Caldecott Medal–winning The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot (1983). “Linda Zuckerman, my editor, was very helpful, because when Martin died I didn’t think I’d ever want to work again,” says Provensen. She’d been working on what she calls “little portraits, like Valentines,” of English kings and queens. “But it turned out there were so many kings and queens, and who cares about them in America anyway?...When we got this idea of doing American presidents it got me back on the road to being an illustrator again.”
Provensen came of age during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (32) presidency and calls him “one of my early heroes,” but tried to keep her personal views out of the text when writing about the presidents. “That’s something you can’t control,” she says. “If you don’t want to say that a president was divorced, you just leave it out.” Only in the book’s endnotes does she include the presidents’ party affiliations.
The overriding emphasis of the book is kid-appeal. “I was doing the book for children or middle-graders, and I wanted them to have some fun with it, too,” says Provensen. “So finding and putting in the interesting details can be more entertaining than pure history.” Often, the design echoes themes within the presidency. Provensen arranges George Washington’s details in a pyramid to echo the dollar bill, and Ronald Reagan’s (40) page evokes a movie theater.
One of the book’s most fascinating aspects are its subthemes, including the fights for African-American and Native American rights, and the suffragist movement. “History is such a vast subject and to confine it in the way it had to be done through the individuals with this book that’s what makes it interesting,” says Provensen. “There are lots and lots of books on the presidents. This is the only one in this huge format. It gave me a chance to put in the changing architecture and automobiles and solo flights.”
It’s also the small details—and not the big events—that surprised Provensen the most while researching the book. “Some of them were very conservative, didn’t drink, didn’t play cards,” she says. “[And] everyone redecorates the Oval Office, apparently, changes the color of the curtains or the rug or the furniture. They’re human beings.”
For more on presidential and election-related titles for kids, including fiction and nonfiction, click here.
(Readers who take the time to follow the link to Kirkus' original review of The Buck Stops Here will see that we didn't admire it quite as much then as we do now. Sometimes it takes 20 years and many enthusiastic child readers to help us see a book in a new light. We're happy to acknowledge its staying power.—The Editors)
The Buck Stops Here: The Presidents of the United States (20th Anniversary Edition)
Viking / Oct. 14, 2010 / 9780670012527 / $18.99