America the Beautiful

by Katharine Lee Bates

illustrated by Neil Waldman

Published by Aladdin Paperbacks

32 pages, 2002

America Is...

by Louise Borden

illustrated by Stacey Schuett

Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books

40 pages, 2002

America: A Patriotic Primer

by Lynne Cheney

illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser

Published by Simon & Schuster

40 pages, 2002

A is for America: An American Alphabet

by Devin Scillian

illustrated by Pam Carroll

Published by Sleeping Bear Press

56 pages, 2001





Four for the Fourth

Reviewed by Pamela C. Patterson


"O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain...." What child growing up in the United States does not know this poem set to music? While it is not the U.S. national anthem, it is certainly just as familiar (not to mention much easier to sing).

In 1893 Katharine Lee Bates, a professor of English at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, visited the Chicago World's Fair and then continued on to Colorado. The glorious view she beheld from Pikes Peak inspired her to write "America the Beautiful." The poem was published for the first time in 1895 and was later set to the music of a familiar hymn by Samuel A. Ward. These days it's a standard at Fourth of July concerts across the land.

Although America the Beautiful with illustrations by Neil Waldman was originally published on the centennial of the poem in 1993, Aladdin Paperbacks has just issued a softcover edition. The acrylic paintings are still luminous, evoking an Impressionist and sometimes even pointillist feel. Waldman has chosen a dozen places -- some wild, some touched by the hand of man -- that speak to the vast wonders of the United States.

Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty -- through Waldman's eyes, they are so much more than tourist destinations. The back of the book features a brief paragraph on each of the 12 sites depicted in his paintings, along with the words and music to "America the Beautiful." (Just the thing for those of you who have never learned the second, third and fourth verses of this venerable ode.)

Continuing in the vein of America in all its diverse glory, America Is... by Louise Borden is a tribute to the people, places, ideals and symbols of the U.S.A. Over an illustration of the Statue of Liberty welcoming boats into New York Harbor, Borden begins: "America is our country. It is the place we call home. We are the nation whose name means freedom to people all over the world." She continues with the fifty states, the Stars and Stripes, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the national anthem.

Then Borden moves on to the people and places: Big cities with their skyscrapers. Small towns surrounded by farms. Swamps and bayous and rivers and lakes. Native Americans and immigrants who came much later. "Miners and factory workers, artists and musicians, bakers and bankers. And millions of other people who work at many different kinds of jobs at every hour of the day and night."

Complemented by Stacey Schuett's vibrant illustrations done in acrylic, gouache and ink, America Is... celebrates the American dichotomy of diversity and unity. (One could argue that there could easily be another picture book with the same title, depicting "No Irish Need Apply" signs on shop windows, the race riots of the 1960s, and school board members having heated discussions about removing the phrase "one nation, under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. But let's not spoil the country's birthday by fighting, shall we?)

Instead, consider this passage:

America is... the stone walls of New England, the forests of the Northwest, the osprey and oysters of the Chesapeake Bay, and Minnesota winters, 10 degrees below zero and sometimes colder.

Or this one:

America is... rugged mountains with caps of snow and deserts that are hot and dry -- 110 degrees in the shade.

Diversity indeed -- from sea to shining sea.

If you're looking for a book with more of the history of how the United States came to be the nation it is today, you should sit down with America: A Patriotic Primer. Laid out in a style reminiscent of a scrapbook, this volume is chock-full of quotes, tidbits and fun facts -- all incorporated into the marvelously detailed drawings of Robin Preiss Glasser.

Author Lynne Cheney -- wife of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney -- has chosen the A to Z approach for subject matter, beginning with "A is for America, the land that we love." Many of the choices are obvious: C is for the Constitution; E is for Equality; "F is for Freedom and the Flag that we fly." The latter two are full of fun stuff like an "Equality Time Line" going from the 1791 Bill of Rights to the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, and a step-by-step illustration on how to fold a flag. (Did you know that a vexillologist is a flag expert? I didn't.)

Far from being a stuffy textbook or boring primer of yore, this book gets an A-plus for its stunning design and innovative presentation of U.S. history. It concludes with five pages of notes on the text, explaining each of the items from A to Z in greater detail. Says Cheney on why she included these end notes: "I wrote this book so that children would enjoy it by themselves, but I like to think that it will most often be read and discussed by parents and children together."

And lest the cynics among you think that Cheney was merely using her celebrity as a political wife to make a quick buck on the book circuit, you'll be pleased to know that she is donating her net proceeds from the book to the American Red Cross and to projects that foster appreciation of American history. The publisher is also donating a portion of its profits to organizations that promote childhood literacy in America. Who can argue with that?

Although A is for America: An American Alphabet was published in 2001, it is nonetheless worthy of inclusion in our patriotic panorama. Part of the series of alphabet books published in recent years by Sleeping Bear Press, this one follows the pattern with rhyming couplets accompanied by related facts. Here's a little ditty on the letter D:

D is for Detroit and its shiny automobiles.
It's called the Motor City and it put the world on wheels.
It's Dallas and it's Denver and Dover, Delaware.
It's the Dakotas in December when snow is in the air.

Author Devin Scillian should know all about Detroit -- he's an anchor for the local NBC affiliate. And artist Pam Carroll has added a fun touch to her illustrations, "folding back" a corner of each page to reveal more drawings.

I have just a minor quibble with A is for America: it has several typos, including two pertaining to the national anthem. Tennessee is misspelled on a map of the U.S., ZIP codes (an acronym for Zoning Improvement Plan) appears in lower case, and Pikes Peak was erroneously given an apostrophe. (Never mind that according to the rules of grammar there should be an apostrophe in the peak named for Zebulon Pike -- the fact remains that the correct usage is Pikes, not Pike's. Katharine Lee Bates would certainly frown on such an oversight.)

Despite these distractions, A is for America is still worth a look. Any of these books would be a welcome addition to any kid's -- or any new immigrant's -- library. | July 2002


Pamela C. Patterson is the granddaughter of immigrants and the proud mother of a newly minted U.S. citizen. Her son Ian, adopted from Russia at age one, needed an immigrant visa to gain entry to the United States.