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Big George: How a Shy Boy Became President Washington

Written by Anne Rockwell

Illustrated by Matt Phelan

Houghton Mifflin (2008)

Before he was the face on the dollar bill, George Washington was a shy boy with a hot temper. But George had character and adaptability. He taught himself courage and self-control. At an early age, and without really realizing it, George Washington gathered the qualities he'd need to become one of the greatest leaders America has ever known.

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  • International Reading Association 2010 Teacher's Choice Book


“ This picture-book biography offers a revealing portrait of the nation's first president, following Washington's growth from a timid youth to a young soldier and then a leader during the American Revolution. Readers will connect with the very human traits Washington exhibits and be gripped by his path to the presidency. ”

— "Books for Grandparents" recommended by AARP Magazine

“ Perhaps as balance to the bicentennial emphasis on Abraham Lincoln comes this welcome new picture book biography of George Washington. Rockwell's direct text describes a tall, shy boy who admired the older brother who raised him, worked to conquer his diffidence and his temper, and went to war, first with and later against the British king, before becoming the first president of the United States. Phelan's soft pencil and gouache illustrations look almost tentative, stressing the boy in the man we know best as a great leader, and bringing the text to life. The words are well placed on double-page spreads where pictures show Washington exploring the Virginia woods, galloping on horseback, and reflecting by the fire, as well as using a sword in battle, crossing the Delaware in a small boat (not standing up), and, unlike most generals, digging a trench with his soldiers at Yorktown. This is an ideal introduction to the man for younger readers and listeners: nicely paced, admiring but not adulatory, and clear about his importance in history. A partial bibliography on the copyright page includes websites, and an afterword discusses Washington's views on slavery, adding depth to this portrayal. ”

— Horn Book

“ Rockwell gives us a whole man, from shy boy to country gentleman, reluctant battlefield hero to legendary leader, and Phelan's bold, dynamic paintings capture the nuances...A fine biography that respects its audience as much as its subject. ”

— Booklist

“ Large in stature and shy of disposition, George Washington demonstrated a remarkable spirit from his early youth. This account focuses on Washington’s upbringing, his Mount Vernon farming and his war experiences before his presidency, concluding with his election. Washington’s hardships are convincingly portrayed as he grieves the devastating loss of his half brother in his youth. “For the rest of his life, George never spoke of that heartbreaking time.” Washington’s military leadership, demonstrated through Braddock’s Defeat, Valley Forge and Yorktown, is effectively depicted. Repeatedly comparing Washington’s life to the Roman leader Cincinnatus, his boyhood hero, Rockwell describes Washington’s personal sacrifice for his fellow soldiers. The thin, swirling lines of Phelan’s soft pencil-and-gouache illustrations enhance the stirring narrative, often depicting people against their natural environment; his powerful use of shadow and light emphasizes Washington’s struggles and victories. Overall, a dynamic examination of one of America's first leaders. ”

— Kirkus

“ Socially awkward children take heart: in his boyhood, the father of our country, says Rockwell (They Called Her Molly Pitcher), 'wasn't afraid of bears, or wolves, or the native hunters with bows and arrows... of anything, except making conversation.' Her adulatory biography offers plenty for contemporary kids to connect with: her George Washington has a temper, dislikes the blood and gore of the battlefield and, even as a general, is the first to start digging trenches. But it's Phelan's (Very Hairy Bear) extraordinary artwork that cements the bond with readers. As his pencil-and-gouache scenes review the events of Washington's life up to the presidency, his scenes bristle with immediacy, dramatic tension and emotional insight. His fluid pictures impart the sense of vivid memories being conjured up, of history being re-lived in all its urgency and telling details. Audiences accustomed to visualizing Washington as the sphinx-like figure on the dollar bill will find Phelan's dashing, steely portrait nothing short of revelatory. ”

— Publishers Weekly

“ This picture book introduces the reader to George Washington, from a shy boy, through his teens and brother’s death, to his time as a young officer during the French and Indian War. By the time the American Revolution begins, Washington has the best experience, and is the best prepared to accept the responsibility of leadership. It talks about his innovative battle tactics and touches on the Delaware crossing, Valley Forge, and Yorktown. The author’s note includes additional information about the stain on the flag of this new country – slavery. ”

— Kiss the Book Blog

“ 'Shy' is hardly a presidential-seeming adjective. That seems to be part of Anne Rockwell’s point, that before he was president, George Washington was a boy. As a boy, he was shy. He was also short-tempered. But through growth, studiousness, the development of maturity, and attention to responsibility, George Washington was able to achieve a role beyond what we expect from children who seem shy. Rockwell begins her biography of the tall boy during his youth. She covers George’s positive relationship with his half-brother Lawrence and his study of ancient Roman heroes. She addresses the brothers’ travels to Barbados, Lawrence’s early death, and George’s entry into military service. She also presents his family life, military leadership, and acceptance of the presidency. A full-page author’s note at the end explains Rockwell’s selection of Washington as a subject for her book and details his feelings about slavery. This is a compelling biography that presents a unique perspective on an important historical figure. Matt Phelan’s pencil and gouache illustrations show George to be a serious, thoughtful, intense figure, but appropriately leave the details of war to the imagination. A selected bibliography of books and websites can be found on the publication data page. This title is highly recommended for classrooms, as well as school and public libraries. ”

— Children's Literature