A perennial challenge for any author writing a picture-book bio of a historical figure is finding a way to portray that person’s life that will also resonate with children. To write Jack’s Path of Courage, Doreen Rappaport started with John F. Kennedy’s childhood, delving into his competitive spirit and the demanding expectations his parents, especially his father, placed on him.
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But writing about Kennedy also posed some unique considerations. “It was a challenge to write about his short presidency,” says Rappaport. “To give young readers some sense of the new spirit that Kennedy and his family and his style represented, yet to understand that his presidency was short, and that [though] he laid the groundwork for social change in this country, it required his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson to enact those changes into law.”
Rappaport emphasizes Kennedy’s courage—his heroism as a naval officer, coping with his chronic pain and his peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s important for young readers to grasp this aspect of his character, she says, “because he had an intuitive understanding from his early childhood that physical courage was only one part of how one defined courage, and that courage really meant confronting each new situation in as direct a manner as possible and using one’s intellect and education to evaluate each situation in its unique possibilities.”
The text and illustrations by Matt Tavares capture a time in history when there seemed to be a greater sense of idealism and trust in government and the political process. Rappaport acknowledges the difficulty of conveying this sensibility to young people two generations removed from it—and emphasizes its importance. “We need to find a better way of communicating with young people, not through sound bites, but through talking directly to them... without dumbing down the message,” she says. “I also believe that if young people study history and see that change is a process and... when people unite and are determined and are patient and persistent that change can come, that they can even change and move politicians over to their point of view.”
Another challenge for both author and illustrator was resisting the temptation to create an idealized portrait. Tavares’ depictions of Kennedy are larger-than-life but also realistic. He pored through boxes of photographs at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library to research the images. “I suppose there is a temptation to portray John F. Kennedy in a romanticized and idealized way,” he says. “I grew up in Massachusetts and always thought of the Kennedys as some sort of royal family. But the more I learned about him while researching the book, I started to see him less as an American icon and more as a real person. Doreen’s text doesn’t present a romanticized or idealized version of JFK, and that made it easier for me to [paint] a more realistic depiction.”
Rappaport and Tavares hope that they’ve succeeded in making a book that will help young readers understand that Kennedy was a leader who tackled real challenges and knew that he would have to fight to realize these ambitions. As Kennedy himself said, in one of the many quotes that run throughout their book, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Jack’s Path of Courage: The Life of John F. Kennedy
Doreen Rappaport; illustrated by Matt Tavares
Disney Hyperion / Oct. 26, 2010 / 9781423122722 / $17.99