We haven't done non-fiction lately, so thought Katie Kennedy's new book, THE PRESIDENT'S DECODED would be a great book to read and talk about! I enjoyed the book and immensely and think you and the kids in your life will, too!
About the book:
1. First of all, congratulations on writing such an interesting book! How long did it take you to do the research before you even started writing?
Thanks! Research took years, if you count the time I spent in college and teaching and reading—I already had a pretty good background when the publisher suggested this project. But specifically, it took about four months, I think. I was reading the Congressional Record at 2:00 a.m.! I had a great time writing this book, and the editor is fun, so we had some entertaining email threads.
2. What gave you the idea to include excerpts from historical documents and then decode them for your readers?
I thought that was the great thing about the first book we did, The Constitution Decoded—it gives readers the tools to decipher the document. I wanted this book to be like that—to give kids primary sources that they could evaluate themselves. And going to the primary sources is an important concept. How do we know what we know? In an age of disinformation, that’s a vital part of education.
3. The media would like us to think that things have only gotten wonky in Washington lately, but it’s clear from the beginning that there has always been in-fighting and significant disagreements between and within parties. How important was it for you to show that?
I wasn’t trying to make political points, so in that sense, it wasn’t at all. But I was trying to tell the whole story as best we could in the space available, and you’re right, that absolutely includes political in-fighting and sniping. I mean, John Tyler got kicked out of his own party, and Andrew Jackson’s campaign accused John Quincy Adams of wearing silk underpants! That’s low.
4. I love how well you placed each president within the historical context of their times. I was shocked to learn about some of Woodrow Wilson’s beliefs, but impressed to learn he was willing to step down immediately if he lost the election if it was better for the country to do so. How did you decide what was the most important things to include for each president?
Oh, it was so hard! Because of course I wanted to include the significant issues—to give readers who are encountering, say, Benjamin Harrison for the first time, some idea of who he was and what he did. So I had to provide a general overview and also highlight what was most significant in each president’s administration. But at the same time, I wanted to go beyond the usual documents and show something a little different, or go a little deeper. An example of that would be the letter in which then-Vice President John Adams referred to himself as “Daddy Vice.”
5. After all your research, did you find yourself with a preference for any specific president over all others?
Like virtually all historians, I rank Abraham Lincoln as our best president, but I think Ulysses S. Grant is greatly underrated. Eisenhower is, too, although not as much. James Buchanan is usually ranked very low, but that’s probably still too high.
No matter how each performed as president, though, they were wrenchingly human. I think of Calvin Coolidge’s helplessness as he watched his son die because of a blister he got playing tennis. Or James Monroe’s courage in combat during the American Revolution, when he was shot and seriously wounded. Theodore Roosevelt’s agony when his wife and mother died the same day. Or John F. Kennedy towing an injured comrade three miles through the Pacific Ocean during WWII, the man’s lifejacket strap clamped in his teeth. Whatever you think of them as presidents, they were also people with remarkable stories.
6. Finally, your book ends with a poignant reminder that the future of the United States lies in the hands of its current and future voters. How do you hope teachers and students use this book to make themselves ready to pick up the democratic torch when their time comes to vote?
I hope that readers think about the gravity of the decision we make in the voting booth. No president gets to choose the challenges they face. So every president—and by extension, every presidential candidate—has to be a mature person with the experience, qualifications, and judgment that allow them to shepherd the country safely for four years.
And I hope readers think about how president after president passed off the office to their successor, even after bitterly contested campaigns. The peaceful transfer of power is not only one of the things that makes America great, it’s one of the things that makes Americans safe. Political stability and governmental competence allow the economy and arts to flourish. If that ever collapses, the loss will be staggering.
7. You’ve decoded the Constitution and the presidents. Anything else you’re dying to decode?
Yes! We’re just starting a book on voting that will be a good companion to THE CONSTITUTION DECODED and THE PRESIDENTS DECODED. I hope when young readers see how hard people have struggled for the right to vote, they’ll look forward to their chance to participate in, and protect, our democracy.
Thank you, Katie!