So what do you do when your pre-adolescent daughter is curious about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, but can't find any age-appropriate books on the topic?
Well, if you're geek chic author Bryan Young, you write a book for her, partnering with an artist to deliver a book that explores the colorful history of attempted and successful attempts on the life of the President of the United States.
Neither watered down nor overly macabre, the book meets kids at their level, trusting them that any kid who would pick up a book like this is probably able to handle the subject matter. As a parent of a couple of young kids who are often fascinated by esoteric historical or scientific topics, I immediately appreciated this.
Young writes about the attempts in a crisp, fun prose. Understanding that most assassins, successful or failed, were fascinating, tragic, flawed, and usually blackhearted people themselves is key. Young doesn't glorify their exploits. But he does provide key context for their individual psychoses. For instance, we hear a lot about John Hinckley's obsession with Taxi Driver and Jodie Foster in the chapter on Reagan.
And we get great, colorful details that history buffs of all ages will appreciate. From Andrew Jackson beating down his would-be assassin with his cane to Giuseppe Zangara's attempt on FDR's life standing on a folding chair since he was only five feet tall, you get the details that make history interesting and worth learning. The book also contains an appendix containing all of the Secret Service names for the presidents. Fun reading.
Illustrator Erin Kubinek's art is also fun, playing up many of these details in an engaging way. A favorite illustration demonstrates unemployed housepainter Richard Lawrence's three-step plan to become King of England by assassinating Andrew Jackson. With eyes swirling wildly with psychotic glee, he yells, "HAHAHAHAHA! Paint THAT!!!"
This-- this is why we love history. And it's why kids will enjoy it. And. . .learn from it?!?! How dare they make history fun? Next they'll find a way to make kids love eating their vegetables.
Some may argue that this subject matter is too "out there" for kids. Certainly a generation of baby boomers traumatized at an early age by the assassination of JFK (and followed by MLK and RFK) might be wary of this book aimed at their grandchildren. But to 30-something alternadads and moms who may or may not have been conscious when John Hinckley shot Reagan and Secretary Jim Brady in March of 1981 (like myself or Young), this is a pitch perfect discussion of a rich historical topic that is neither exploitative, salacious, nor bloody.
Sure, I haven't yet talked to my kids about 9/11, nor do I talk to them about Sandy Hook. I'm not trying to shelter them, but they're not yet ready for the burden of understanding how scary the world can be. But history? My 8 year old already learned in Kindergarten (three years ago) that someone shot Martin Luther King, Jr. Ditto for John Lennon (I told her that one when she asked if we could go see The Beatles in concert). So why not teach her, at her level, about our rich, shared history? Even the unsavory parts?
Therefore, in the mind of this parent: this is kid-approved. Indeed, my daughter loved the chapter we read on Andrew Jackson together.
Concerned about the content? Check out the book and some of the illustrations yourself. But don't judge a book by its cover, or even its title. Truth? Young is able to walk a beautiful tightrope between over-sanitizing history, making it bland and boring, and traumatizing children by being overly morbid or scary. It's perfect in balancing its tone.
One thing this book is likely to do is send your conservative friends and neighbors into a tizzy. Not only is he playing on Bill O'Reilly's turf (and destroying him by comparison, both in accuracy and readability) by writing about presidential assassination, Young has a very coy, almost imperceptible, liberal slant in his writing. He tries to be dispassionate and evenhanded, but it comes through. His chapter on FDR (accurately) praises him for all of the (amazing, progressive) things he did. By comparison, the chapter on Reagan spends more time praising Martin Scorcese than the Gipper, whom Young damns with the faint praise of being popular but "divisive."
The subject matter of the book will also likely send the Biddie Brigade into histrionics. Someone needs to get this book to Elisabeth Hasselbeck stat so she can start blaming it for everything wrong in America and blaming the mythical "liberal media" for it. Maybe she can propose tracking people who buy this book (and Catcher in the Rye, natch) to help ferret out would-be assassins?
You can pre-order the book now and get various goodies with a donation to the book's Kickstarter campaign (ends September 25!), after which it will be made available by Silence in the Library publishing and the author's website. You can also purchase some of Young's other (excellent) work there as well.