Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out

Book review by
Matt Berman, Common Sense Media
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Enjoyable, if not always accurate, history tales.

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A lot or a little?

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

Positive Messages

Wars and 9/11 are discussed, a soldier injures a boy with a sword, a young man's hand is crushed, men are lashed and shot.


Snack food brand mentioned.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A mention of a drunk senator.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that the main thing to be concerned with here is context and accuracy. Some opinion is presented as fact, some facts are simply wrong, and some are presented without their historical context, all of which will require help and explanations from an adult. In addition, facts in some chapters are directly in conflict with those in others. Apparently the editors did this on purpose to provoke family discussion, which is great if the whole family is reading it. (Please refer to the Publisher's Note below for more on this.) But children reading it themselves will need some help, as the conflict is never pointed out in the book, nor are any explanations given.

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What's the story?

Written and illustrated by more than 100 well-known children's authors and illustrators, this large compendium of stories about the White House and its inhabitants over the past two centuries includes stories about most of the famous presidents, and some of those lesser known, from John Adams to the second President Bush. Includes an introduction by David McCullough, and notes on the sources and contributors.

Is it any good?

Most of the authors and illustrators in this large-format collection tell lively and engaging stories fairly and straightforwardly; but not all, and the few mar an otherwise splendid volume.

More than most areas of nonfiction, writing history for children is a perilous undertaking, because it's more susceptible to the biases of its authors. It's almost impossible to write about history neutrally, and children lack the context and background to know when a writer is misleading them. Therefore historians must be especially scrupulous when writing for children.

It's confusing enough, for instance, when one story tells how Dolly Madison rescued the portrait of George Washington from the British; the next chapter says that "this is totally false," and the next chapter depicts her doing it. But the worst offense happens in a piece by Milton Meltzer. The veteran historian and author puts forth his opinions (and rather controversial opinions at that) as fact, and supports them with ... well, let's be charitable and say mistakes of fact. In advancing his thesis that "it is often forgotten or ignored that slavery helped raise Jefferson to the presidency," in a series of statements that are debatable at best, he states that the Constitution's three-fifths clause gave "a southerner who owned, say, a thousand slaves ... six hundred more [votes]." This is patently untrue. The three-fifths clause affected proportional representation in Congress, not the number of votes an individual citizen could cast in an election. Allowing such nonsense in, the editors have done a disservice both to the other authors, and to the children who will read this and not know that they are being led astray.

Note from the Publisher:
The contradictory pieces in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out, most pointedly in the War of 1812 and 9/11 sections, are purposeful; meant to encourage adults and young people to read together and use the book as a springboard to discussion. The experience of finding contradictory primary and secondary sources is the experience of all historians. Historians must look critically at all sources, and realize that factual information is seen through the eyes of very different individuals -- no one is an objective observer, so they must seek different perspectives. Candlewick and the NCBLA hope young people will have this same experience when they read Our White House.

Parents and teachers can use these contradictory sections to teach young people critical thinking skills, asking -- Is history only the story of the aggressors, the winners, the dominant? Why do we often prefer to believe the "legend" rather than the actual factual account of a historic event? Why are some voices silenced through the ages? Do you need to seek multiple perspectives in seeking the truth? And on the deepest level, what is "the truth"? Candlewick and the NCBLA believe that in a democracy, citizens both young and old have a responsibility to seek out quality and dependable information sources that represent multiple perspectives, for only then will they be able to ascertain the truth.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about reading history. How can you know what's true? How can you tell fact from opinion? How do historians decide what to put in and what to leave out? How is the story they tell affected by who they are, where they come from, etc.? Is it possible to tell purely factual history?

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