Dear Mr. Washington

Book review by
Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media
Dear Mr. Washington Book Poster Image
Artist's kids get George to smile in funny historical romp.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Some fun facts about George Washington. Shows kids how people in his era dressed. Offers a human view of the first president. The author's note includes the fact that one of Stuart Gilbert's portraits of Washington ended up on the dollar bill and mentions Washington's book on good manners, Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. The text of Dear Mr. Washington quotes some of that book's rules in updated language.

Positive Messages

Behave well and be considerate of others, especially a guest in your home. If you make mistakes, strive to do better and apologize if needed.

Positive Role Models & Representations

George Washington is a well-respected leader and shows he has a heart, too. The kids are playful and try to be polite and well-behaved. Charlotte is polite and writes letters of apology. The artist is patient with Washington and his kids. Both parents are tolerant of their kids' playful, messy ways. 

Violence & Scariness

A toddler tips a punch bowl onto his head. 


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Dear Mr. Washington is a fictional tale based on the historical fact that the president came to the home of painter Gilbert Stuart to sit for a portrait. Stuart had trouble getting him to smile, and, in this story, his rambunctious kids provoke the president to show his pearly whites. It's a funny story that humanizes Washington, and Nancy Carpenter's wonderful illustrations are action-packed. Fun fact: Stuart did three portraits of Washington, one of which is on the dollar bill.

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What's the story?

In a fictional tale based on the true story of President George Washington sitting for a portrait with painter Gilbert Stuart, the president comes to the artist's house three times before he's finally captured smiling. The chaos of Stuart's many kids (in real life he had 12!), cat, and dog cause Washington to flee the first time and send the family his famous book on the rules of civility (which covers eating etiquette and how to politely pick lice and ticks off a companion, among other things). Daughter Charlotte writes to thank him, and that letter and two more form the text of the book. Her letters offer apologies for their bad behavior and notes on how she and her siblings now understand the rules (delineated with many funny pictures of Washington himself). Her third letter recounts Washington's last visit, when he finally smiled at the kids horsing around, and her father was able to complete his painting.  

Is it any good?

DEAR MR. WASHINGTON is a hoot. It not only humanizes the president but also entertains with the juxtaposition of normal family mayhem with active kids and the portrait sitting of a prestigious subject. Charlotte's formal letters are funny as they recount the crazy things that happened when Mr. Washington was visiting her home.

Nancy Carpenter's playful ink-and-wash illustrations give kids many fun details to pore over, including a punch bowl turned upside down on a toddler and whimsical spot art in the author's note of a smiling George wearing one starred and one striped stocking as he reads Charlotte's letter. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about George Washington. Why do you think he hated to have his picture painted? What did it take to get him to smile? How do you feel about getting your picture taken? 

  • Is it fun to read about people who lived hundreds of years ago? Why? 

  • Does Dear Mr. Washington make you feel any differently about George Washington than you did before? What did you learn about him from this book? 

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love history

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