Worst Friends cover
Cover illustration
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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Worst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the True Story of an American Feud

by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain; illus. by Larry Day

Those Rebels, John & Tom

by Barbara Kerley; illus. by Edwin Fotheringham

Well before children understand the intricacies of the American Revolution and the early Federalist period, they understand quite a bit about friendship. The unlikeliest people can bond over a shared project; disagreements between friends can boil over when others fire up the drama; distance and pride make reconciliation difficult; restoring a broken friendship feels great. Kids who hold these truths to be self-evident will be cheered to learn through this pair of picture-book histories that even two of our celebrated presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, found managing a friendship as hard as launching a nation.

Kerley’s Those Rebels, John & Tom tracks the friendship through its glory days. When the men initially meet at the first Continental Congress, John Adams—a short, rotund, disputatious New Englander of modest means—is initially skeptical of Thomas Jefferson—the tall, reticent, well-to-do Virginian (“How could anyone who cared that much about American sit silently by?”). Jefferson, in turn, can’t understand how anyone could love to argue as much as Adams. Nonetheless, each quickly recognizes the other’s commitment to the Colonial cause, and they are soon lauding each other’s character and amiability. They agree that by combining their skills of written and oral persuasion they could bring an indecisive Congress around to a vote for independence from England. Jefferson handles the writing, Adams supplies the oratory, and after some significant editing by the delegates, the Declaration of Independence is adopted. The newly minted statesmen had “formed a surprising alliance, committed treason, and helped launch a new nation.”

In Worst of Friends, Jurmain picks up the story—of Adams and Jefferson, and of the newborn country—almost exactly where Kerley leaves off. For children who haven’t gotten much beyond Fourth of July fireworks and George Washington, this should be the proper ending to the patriotic tale. We defy King George, we win the Revolution, Adams and Jefferson get to be president, and American lives pretty happily ever after, at least until the Civil War. Sorry, no. While George Washington (who, incidentally, does not even make a cameo appearance here) conducts his presidency, good friends Adams and Jefferson arrive back home after diplomatic missions in Europe with very different ideas on how their great project, the United States, should be governed. Adams supports a strong central government, while Jefferson favors states’ rights. The Federalist and Republican parties diverge similarly, and the erstwhile friends’ private quarrels turn to nasty name-calling (Jefferson deems Adams “vain, suspicious, irritable, stubborn, and wrong” while Adams counters by labeling Jefferson as “weak, confused, uninformed, and ignorant”). Vilification turns to violence (“Some Republicans and Federalists actually battled in the streets”). The friendship that had spurred independence falls into shambles as each man takes on the presidency and publicly criticizes the wrong-headedness of his rival. Years of silence follow, and finally, as the men settle into retirement away from the turbulence of political life, Adams sends Jefferson a New Year’s greeting, which is warmly received and leads to renewed correspondence: “After eleven years there was so much to say, and Tom and John could hardly write letters fast enough.”

It’s unusual to find such happy synergy in a pair of picture books released within a few months of each other. Kerley and Jurmain use the theme of friendship as an entry point for exploring the hard, messy work of nation building, both in building colonial consensus for independence and in taking its first steps on the world stage. Each author approaches her respective chapter of the Adams/Jefferson story with a light-hearted but eminently humane touch, allowing the books to be read in tandem with scarcely a tonal shift. Both titles boast illustrations that underscore the odd-couple humor of the texts. For Those Rebels, Fotheringham employs a style reminiscent of political cartooning, with colonists lining up to drop their taxes in a bucket labeled “Royal Tariff,” while King George shakes a windfall of coins out of his piggy bank; Jefferson attacks the king with a feather pen the size of a spear. The broadly comedic style is marred only by the overbearing use of red, white, navy and powder blues, and dull gold which, when relentlessly juxtaposed, seem strangely muddied. Day fares better, overall, with his line-and-watercolor paintings in Worst of Friends, which pay thorough attention to period details even as they capture the humor of Adams sneaking his furniture out of the White House to avoid meeting up with his incoming ex-friend, and Jefferson pulling on his Adams’ coattail to keep him from pummeling a haughty, rude King George at court.

George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt tend to monopolize the picture-book spotlight. If they have reached their term limits in your Presidents Day celebrations, here’s your opportunity to put Adams and Jefferson on the ballot.

--Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

Worst Friends cover

Cover image from Worst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the True Story of an American Fued ©2011 by Larry Day.  Used by permission of Dutton.

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This page was last updated on January 1, 2012.