Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘President Adams’ Alligator and Other White House Pets

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?

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