Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘Peter and Cheryl Barnes

Peter-and-Cheryl-BarnesPeter and Cheryl Barnes are a husband and wife team specializing in educational books for children. A creative director of Little Patriot Press, Cheryl is an illustrator with a background in architecture. A journalist who currently works for Fox Business Network, Peter has reported for various organizations. Their books have won numerous awards including 2010 USA Book New Best Book Award, the National Council for the Social Studies Notable Trade Book for Young People Award, and the Distinguished Authors for a Body of Work Award from the Capital Books Festival. The Barnes have two grown children and live in Virginia.

Over the past few months, I have been privileged to review their Woodrow Mouse books and their latest recent President Adam’s Alligator and Other White House Pets. Today I’m also privileged to present my interview with them. 

ALLISON: How did you come up with the idea of the Mouse Tale books? Why a mouse?

CHERYL: Our second book was Alexander the Old Town Mouse…about my home town Alexandria, Virginia. I went and met with the city archeologist and asked her what animal character would be appropriate for a book about our city….and she immediately said…a mouse….Because when they found mouse skeletons all over when they did archaeological digs….Mice can go everywhere….they can hide…and they can have a parallel world going on without us humans knowing about it…. And Mickey Mouse hasn’t done so bad for himself!

ALLISON: You have written many educational books. What drew you to this field?

CHERYL: It was not planned. My husband decided he wanted to do a little children’s book about our favorite vacation spot, Nantucket, Mass….he wrote a little ditty about Nat, Nat the Nantucket Cat and we sold a couple of thousand books the first year…We self published….and then we thought…Hmmmm. let’s try another and another….

The White House book was our first educational book and that was not our idea. A mom who had kids at our kids school approached me the idea…since she worked at the White House….we did that…then the capitol folks called…then the Supreme Court was the next logical book to do….

ALLISON: Why did you decide to tell the stories in poetic form instead of narrative fiction?

CHERYL: Because my husband Peter is very good at rhyming verse…very clever…and the kids seem to like the sing-songy lines…our new book, President Adam’s Alligator is not in rhyming verse since it is too hard to rhyme all names of the real presidential pets and create a good story.

ALLISON: Were the two of you good students?

CHERYL: My husband Peter was always a good student…me…not so much. It turned out I am dyslexic but in those days they just didn’t know how to diagnose it very well. So I struggled. I never thought I was smart! But I had a good personality and was a good artist to compensate for my lack of self-confidence in my ability to excel in school. After our oldest daughter Maggie was diagnosed, I realized I had so many of the same difficulties growing up…so I went back and did some graduate classes…and since I understood myself better, I aced the classes! Self awareness is a wonderful thing!

ALLISON: What is your favorite animal? Is there an animal you dislike? Why?

CHERYL: My favorite animal has to be Barney because I got to spend time with him at the White house….He was so sweet and loving in the early years….he got a little feisty and ornery as he got older but we all do! I don’t like snakes and I don’t really count alligators as a favorite pet either. Reading about the Teddy Roosevelt family and the boy’s fascination with snakes gave me the creeps!.

ALLISON: In one interview, Peter said that people are always shocked to realize he is the author of the Mouse Tail books. What is one other thing that readers might be surprised to know about the two of you?

CHERYL: We live with 5 kitties. 3 are feral kitties that decided to move inside when it started to get cold. And NO I am not a crazy cat lady! Peter and I have been involved with a wonderful organization called the Wheelchair Foundation over the past 10 years. I helped organize a wheelchair distribution in Kabul, Afghanistan…going there was quite an experience…And Peter has traveled all over the world following our Presidents when they attend economic summits!

ALLISON: How did the two of you become an author and illustrator team?

CHERYL: When we decided to self publish Nat, Nat the Nantucket Cat.

ALLISON: What topic(s) have you found most interesting to explore? What topics would you still like to explore?

CHERYL: I want to learn Chinese! Peter wants to study theology

ALLISON: Do you visit libraries and schools to promote your books? What were your most memorable moments?

CHERYL: When it was still allowed. the US Capitol had me come and do a book signing at the House Gift Shop. We sold hundreds of books and I got to meet may of the Congressmen, Congresswomen and Senators who came to have us sign books!

ALLISON: Cheryl has a background in architecture. How have you drawn upon this background when creating your illustrations?

CHERYL: I am a little obsessive compulsive about trying to get the buildings and rooms and details as exact as I can…the more teeny tiny details the better …and kids seem to like it. I have never had any formal training in art…so I guess it is a gift…but I have worked hard to use that gift to the best of my ability….Practice…Practice…Practice!

ALLISON: Cheryl is also a Creative Director for Little Patriot Press. Talk about an average work day.

CHERYL: My offices are very close to the US Capitol so I get to see that beautiful building many times a day! The Publisher I now work with, Regnery, has me working on lots of other children’s books…I work with authors and find wonderful talented illustrators for each project…The publishing team that I work with are bright and energetic…and I love being around lots of young creative people!

ALLISON: Peter is a journalist. How have you drawn upon this background when writing your books. Talk about an average work day.

PETER: I have been covering Washington DC and the economy for 20 years and draw on my experience as a reporter here all of the time for our books about civics. Because I cover the economy, I work pretty much all of my waking hours, as the financial crisis made Washington DC the center of the universe for policy responses and we are getting news all of the time on it. Today I am reporting on the Federal Reserve, in fact.

ALLISON: What’s a lazy day for the two of you?

CHERYL: We have a little sports car that we love to drive and go exploring. We live in a beautiful part of the country…with the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean within a few hours drive!

ALLISON: What’s next?

CHERYL: We love what we do…so we will keep working…but with our first grandson Tristan more grandchildren on the way….we want to spend more time having FUN with them!

For more information about Cheryl and Peter Barnes, check out these two sites:

A book about pets is sure to make me smile, especially when it’s titled President Adams’ Alligator and Other White House Pets. This week, I’m reviewing the newest educational picture book from Peter and Cheryl Barnes. I found the information and illustrations overwhelmed me more than in their Woodrow Mouse books, and yet the topic is so unique and fun that I still enjoyed it.

The Barnes know their audience and have smartly framed President Adams’ Alligator and Other White House Pets with a classroom discussion. Mrs. Tucker asks her class, “What is your favorite pet?” This question will never fail to garner responses or interest, both in fictional and real elementary-school classrooms. When one boy draws an alligator, he receives protest from his peers: “An alligator isn’t a pet!” Like all good teachers should, Mrs. Tucker uses this as a teaching moment. She tells her students that one of America’s presidents had a pet alligator. And while most presidential pets have been quite ordinary, more than a few have been anything but. The oddest: a cow, a kangaroo squirrel, a raccoon, grizzly bears, tiger cubs, and a herd of elephants. How did the presidents end up with these eclectic pets? What kind of care did they need? Were they ever a danger? Answers to all these questions are given by Mrs. Tucker, who is one very informed teacher!

How did the Barnes manage to provide all this information in a picture book? Ah-ha! Therein, lies one of my quibbles. At times the Barnes hurried so quickly that their facts that it amounted to little more than trivia. For example, all I learned about John Adams’ pet is that it was a horse named Cleopatra, for whom he had a stable built on the White House lawn. This is an interesting tidbit, to be sure, but I’d like even more details. Other times, the Barnes did slow down and dedicate more time to their exposition. For that reason, I now know that General Lafayette brought an alligator to live with President Adams. Uncertain of how to house an alligator, the president put it in a bathtub in the East Room, which naturally made workers and visitors a little scared. The other two criticisms I have of President Adams’ Alligator and Other White House Pets involve the illustrations. First, the children’s faces seem too mature. Second, some (but not all) of the pages feel overly cluttered. It is the Barnes’ style to have a lot happening in their artwork, but the drawings worked better for me in the Woodrow Mouse books. Both with the text and artwork, I could see the Barnes’ creating a longer book with less packed pages.

These criticism aside, I love the topic of White House pets. The Barnes have presented their information is a charming style and with colorful illustrations. As is customary with their books, every page has a hidden object; this time it’s an alligator. The “Tail End” includes invaluable resources for adults such as the origins of pets and additional information about president pets. For kids, there is a presidential pet matching game and a true or false quiz. As an extra bonus, the Barnes have also provided a page that shares how they came up with idea for President Adams’ Alligator and Other White House Pets and a page about the Barnes and their pets.

At the end of President Adams’ Alligator and Other White House Pets, Mrs. Tucker asks her students, “Which White House pet is your favorite?” Then she allows the class to cast a ballot and vote. (I told you the Barnes smartly framed their information.) As a teacher, I can see my students wanting to know more about presidential pets.  The Barnes have written a wonderful book about an obscure but fascinating topic.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Woodrow Mouse is back! In late August, I reviewed Woodrow for President. Now I’m delighted to review the follow-up book: Woodrow the White House Mouse. Just like its predecessor, information that might otherwise be dull or difficult has been made fun through cute rhymes. Moreover, the lavish  illustrations are once again colorful, detailed, and purposeful. Having said this, you might wonder: What else do you need to know? Well, Woodrow the White House Mouse isn’t just a clone. And so there are features I’d like to tell you about.

For one thing there is the subject matter. “Woodrow G. Washingtail won the last vote.” This means there is a host of information to introduce about the White House. The President and his family must attend the Inaugural Ball. As a point of interest, the dress of one of Woodrow’s children is modeled on the exact gown worn by the wife of President Eisenhower for his first inaugural celebration. Then there is the Oval Office, East Room, Red Room, Green Room, and Blue Room. I guess the president likes to have rooms of different colors! The White House has apparently one hundred rooms, the most famous of which are described in Woodrow the White House Mouse. Because of my being Canadian, all this information is new to me and so this book has given me a better understanding of the American Presidency. (Or, at least his house. :-)) The best picture books are ones that appeal to all ages.

For another thing there are the mini-stories. Granted, the cute rhymes help lighten up otherwise dull information. Yet it’s one thing to learn about the Inaugural Ball, it’s another thing to read the amusing and creative anecdote about how one of Woodrow’s sons fell into a senator’s soup while attending it. In the same vein, it’s one thing to learn about all the colored rooms of the White House, it’s another thing to read the fanciful imaginings of one of his daughters who dreamed she might dance ballet in the East Room and be joined by the famous Maine Mouse Quartet. Those made-up mini-stories add personality and humor, making difficult and factual information more palatable. Another positive to the mini-stories is that they endear readers to Woodrow and his family, while at the same time educating readers about the White House. For example, because Woodrow and his family take time to play on Egg Rolling Day, I learned that such an event happens annually at the White House.

Before closing, there are three more features which I’d like to briefly cover. I’ll start with one that holds true for both books but I neglected to note in my earlier review. The illustrations are worth looking at for their own right and could inspire many conversations. For example, on the first spread, there is an illustration of Woodrow with his bodyguards, the Presidential Seal, election signs, and Woodrow’s family. The illustrator has even built-in a reason to examine the artwork. In Woodrow for President, a secret service agent was hidden on every page. In Woodrow The White House Mouse, a Presidential Seal can be found on every page. Last, there is the Tail End, which again is a supplementary feature at the back of both books. In Woodrow The White House Mouse, the adults can learn the reasons America has a president, trivia about some of America’s presidents, the origins of the White House, explanation about the more than one hundred rooms, and other facts.

Woodrow has run for president and now served as president. Do I sniff a series in the making? Perhaps there’s a clue in the last sentence: “…. A fellow just might want to seek re-election.”

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

A couple of weeks ago, a beautiful hardcover picture book called Woodrow for President arrived at my doorstep. I received this book by Peter and Cheryl Barnes as part of the TLC Tour Books. (You can find a full list of tour sites near the top of the right hand column.) Immediately, I proudly showed off the cute and lavish picture book to my husband. Then I set down to read it. 🙂

One of the quirks I’ve picked up as an adult is I prefer to first look in the children’s section of the library when I want to know more about topic. Children’s books give me the basics, and then some, without bogging me down with endless information. I especially appreciate that trait when it comes to topics that I’d otherwise never read about such as the electoral process. Through Woodrow for President, even though it is about a mouse and the United Mice for America, I gained an appreciation for exactly how many steps a citizen might undertake before running for president: sit on the town council, become mayor, get voted state governor, campaign in all fifty states, hold a primary election, compete in debates, attend a national convention, await nomination, work the campaign trail again, and finally hope to receive presidential election. Wow!

That said, I was still somewhat surprised that I liked Woodrow for President. As a teacher, I resent when information is disguised as a story. It’s difficult enough to turn my students onto the joy of reading without force-feeding them facts. Make no mistake, the style in Woodrow for President is an informational one but Woodrow is such an easily likeable character, because of his valuing hard work, knowing right from wrong, and marrying the hometown girl. Okay, that makes him sound stiff, but he’s nice and cute—and I liked him. And while I normally don’t like rhyming picture books, the rhymes rarely sound forced and so mostly make for an entertaining read.

Then we have the illustrations. As an adult who reads to a young audience, I hate when every last page is loud with color. Granted, some of the pages in Woodrow for President are a little cluttered, but over all the pictures relate to the story rather than being there just to entertain. They’re also colorful without being overwhelming and painful, as well as detailed without being chaotic. In essence, they’re just darn cute! It’s also piles of fun to look for the mouse Secret Service agent hidden in each drawing. If my middle-aged husband can become absorbed in the search, I know children will too.

All the above is my reaction as an adult. In following the reviews of bloggers who shared Woodrow for President with younger readers, I noticed they reported mixed opinions. From my own experiences with introducing books similar to Woodrow in style and design, I have to wonder if the target audience of kindergarten to grade four would choose Woodrow of their own accord. Younger kids may complain about its somewhat text-heavy pages, while older kids will likely disdain its overly cute illustrations. Yet I could see reading Woodrow for President as part of an elementary social studies class and from there it gaining popularity. You’d be surprised at how many books I’ve first heard about because a teacher introduced in class and then students embraced it.

This review is growing overly long, considering the shortness of most picture books, and so I’ll wrap it up with a few last observations. I don’t often see my students checking out the extra pages in an informational book, which here include information about past presidents, campaigns, and elections, along with a contract to vote that parents and children can sign. Maybe because adults are the ones expected to check out these pages, the pages are labeled as being for parents and teachers. Oddly though, except for the contract, they’re mostly written as for a younger audience. Personally, I think the contract would have been more meaningful if written in kid-friendly language. These criticisms aside, I love extras in a book and so appreciated seeing the abundance of them in Woodrow for President.
If you remember at the start, I mentioned showing Woodrow for President off to my husband because of its cute and lavish package. After reading Woodrow for President, I paraded around with it again. What an awesome book to use to teach children about the electoral process. I’m delighted to have received a copy for being a TLC host! I also look forward to read future offerings by Peter and Cheryl Barnes, one of which is already on its way to me. 🙂

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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