Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything

Book review by
Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media
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Lively, frank portrait of Jefferson, flaws and all.

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

Educational Value

Abundant facts about Jefferson and interesting details about his life at Monticello, including that his favorite vegetable was peas, that he practiced the violin three hours a day, and he served vanilla ice cream in his dining room. There's mention of his enslaving 150 people, including Sally Hemmings, and a reproduction of a page from Jefferson's farm book listing his enslaved workers, including her. "It is strongly believed that after his wife died, Jefferson had children with the beautiful Sally Hemmings," says Kalman. "Some of them were freed and passed for white," she writes, and then explains what "passing for white" means. A double spread of "Notes" at the back has an item about Sally Hemmings that concludes, "Some controversy remains about whether or not Jefferson was the father of her six children -- he never commented on it publicly."

Positive Messages

Jefferson's quotes include: "The object of walking is to relax the mind"; "When you are angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, to 100"; and "Determine never to be idle." Plus there's a strong message to be bold, stand up for what you believe in, make your own path in the world, and take risks. Also there's the notion that people should be free to practice whatever religion they like and that, as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, "All men are created equal." 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Thomas Jefferson was a courageous man who loved books and learning and was interested in "everything." An inventor and a visionary, he wrote the Declaration of Independence. As the United States' third president, he doubled the size of the country with the Louisiana Purchase. He sent Lewis and Clark on an expedition to explore the land from the Mississippi River to the West Coast, and he designed and built his great house and estate, Monticello. He was a great leader and a founding father of America but also a man of contradictions. He called slavery an "abomination" but enslaved 150 people and, "it is strongly believed," fathered several children with Sally Hemmings, an enslaved woman in his home, after his wife died.  

Violence & Scariness



What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Maira Kalman's Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything is remarkable for its bold and colorful illustrations and unflinching look at Jefferson's life. Unlike a sanitized elementary-school textbook, Kalman's engaging picture book offers a fuller picture -- including Jefferson's relationship and offspring with Sally Hemmings, who was one of about 150 people he enslaved despite having said of slavery, "This abomination must end." 

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What's the story?

The story starts out simply enough, with some basic facts: Jefferson was born on a plantation in Virginia in 1743, had red hair, grew up to be very tall, and became the third president of the United States. It goes on to recount the man's numerous great accomplishments and his troubling contradictions, specifically declaring slavery an "abomination" yet enslaving 150 people. It also depicts his enslaved worker Sally Hemmings and mentions that it's "strongly believed" he fathered children with her after his wife died.

Is it any good?

This is a lively, fascinating account of the great man's life and accomplishments that's packed with fun facts and poignant asides by author-illustrator Maira Kalman. Readers can feel her excitement as she presents amusing details and sense her confusion and sorrow as she wonders how Jefferson could have enslaved people when he decried slavery. "The monumental man had monumental flaws," she writes.

But Kalman clearly wants to give him a break. When reporting that he would visit the kitchen each week and wind the grandfather clock on a page where she shows the enslaved kitchen staff hard at work, she adds, "He probably said a few kind words to the cooks." On the facing page detailing the many kinds of pudding served at Monticello -- "all produced by the endless labor of slaves" -- she editorializes, "Jefferson may have been a kind master, but it was still a horror."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Thomas Jefferson and his many accomplishments. What are you most impressed by? 

  • How does the portrait of Thomas Jefferson in this book compare with what you've learned about him in school? 

  • Why do you think he didn't mention being president of the United States on his tombstone? 

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love history

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