Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Nonfiction: WHAT TO DO ABOUT ALICE? by Barbara Kerley

Kerley, Barbara.  2008. What to Do about Alice?  How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove her Father Teddy Crazy!  Ill.  By Edwin Fotheringham.  New York, NY: Scholastic Press.
ISBN 978-0-439-92231-9


This picture book biography of the oldest of Teddy Roosevelt’s children offers insight not just into the character of Alice Roosevelt, but also into the times in which she lived.  Alice was an outspoken, active girl who wanted to DO things—fun, crazy things--not sit sedately on the sidelines as girls and women were expected to do in that era.  Given Teddy Roosevelt’s political ambitions, Alice could have been a big problem, but it turned out that the world, for the most part, adored Alice.  She, in turn, adored her father. 

The end pages include an Author’s Note discussing Alice's continued political power.  It also provides information about Alice’s biological mother, Theodore Roosevelt’s first wife (also named Alice) who died early in their marriage.  

The text is organized chronologically, from her young childhood through her adulthood into her marriage. This organization makes it easy for readers to follow along.  Kerley's writing style includes giving plenty of details about the kind of wild escapades that Alice gets into, such as “She jumped fully clothed into the ship’s swimming pool” and “She even created the Night Riders, who galloped to the houses of friends and bellowed until invited in for snacks.”  Her examples provide strong images for the reader, which are supported by the illustrations.  The fact that these images are hardly the image of a sedate president’s daughter or senator’s wife is what draws the reader in.  But somehow, it worked for Alice and her family.  Her father remained one of the most popular presidents of all time and some credit that to his charming daughter.

With sprinkles of actual quotations throughout the text and the use of a variety of fonts and font sizes, Alice’s cheery, witty spirit shines right through the page.  There is a distinct style to the use of font and the text features.  For example, when Alice tells her father to give her a piggy back ride, the font is larger and bold when she cries, “NOW, PIG!” in all capital letters.  There is no doubt as to her strong-willed nature.  Kerley includes important quotes from Roosevelt, such as: “I can be president of the United States, or I can control Alice.  I cannot possibly DO BOTH.”  The bold, all-capital letters emphasize his desperate emotions.
Kerley shows good use of humor by contrasting the requests of President Roosevelt, (again in bold, all capital letters) “’BEWARE OF PUBLICITY!’ Father said.”  But the next page simply says, “Oh, Alice,” with a flurry of newspaper headlines suggesting plenty of gossip and interest in her activities, and an image of Alice herself in motion, with a small smile, exiting off the side of the page, still on the go. The fact that there is not an exclamation point in the quote creates a feeling much like a sigh—as if he knew it was pointless to even ask her to restrain herself.

In Children’s Literature in Action, Dr. Vardell states, “Enticing children to read biographies got a little bit easier with the arrival of picture book biographies” (245).   The visual interest of the fun, high-voltage illustrations in What to do About Alice? will keep children’s interest throughout the text that is rather lengthy for a picture book.  

The design of the cartoon style art cleverly suggests busy movement on nearly every page.  For example, Fotheringham uses motion lines behind Alice as she rides on her bike (on top of the seat, hands in the air with her feet on the handle bars) to indicate speed.  On page 1, dots trace her many movements criss-crossing the floor.  The repeated line that Alice “ate up the world,” fits with this kind of frenetic motion within the art.  Alice is shown in bright colors, usually the deep red that appears on most pages and unifies the images.  She often is shown larger-than-life, such as in the final image, when she is walking across the earth like someone in a tall tale, holding her gold spoon, ready to keep eating up the world.  She is shown living life to the fullest.

As far as trusting the accuracy of the text, the sources for Kerley's quotes are listed in the back.  There were 6 sources used, which seems on the thin side for a book with this much text.  She gives a special thanks to Carol Felsenthal for fact checking.  I looked up Carol Felsenthal, who has written an entire book on Alice Roosevelt Longworth—so she’s an excellent person to use as a source!  Kerley did also use one of Felsenthal's books as a source for her book as well.


"Theodore Roosevelts irrepressible oldest child receives an appropriately vivacious appreciation in this superb picture book.... Kerleys precise text presents readers with a devilishly smart, strong-willed girl who was determined to live life on her own terms and largely succeeded."  -- Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review, February 1, 2008

 "Kerleys text gallops along with a vitality to match her subjects antics…. Fotheringhams digitally rendered, retro-style illustrations are a superb match for the text."  --  School Library Journal, Starred Review,March 2008

"Irrepressible Alice Roosevelt gets a treatment every bit as attractive and exuberant as she was....The large format gives Fotheringham, in his debut, plenty of room for spectacular art." -- Booklist, Starred Review, December 15, 2007

  • Draw their favorite scene from the book and talk about why they liked it.
  • Invite students to discuss gender roles throughout time…or today!
  • Invite students to pick a female in history who defied gender roles and do a short presentation.  For example, students could choose to read a book about Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I, Amelia Earhart, Jane Goodall, or Coretta Scott King.
  • Pair this book with a more traditional biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth and compare and contrast the two books.
  • Pair it with Mind Your Manners, Alice Roosevelt! by Leslie Kimmelman.  Talk about how the illustrations and presentation of Alice are the same and different.  This would be a fun way to use a Venn diagram.

My children liked this book overall, but it was too long for them.  They got bored part-way through.  I liked learning about Alice Roosevelt.  I had no idea she was such a spitfire.  I did some more research and learned that she was not just seen as charming, though.  This book over-simplified things, as picture books often do.  That’s okay, but it seemed that rather than just being fun and silly, she did some mean pranks and gossiped and was generally tough to be around.  I read in a summary of another biography that Alice couldn’t stand most of her relatives, to include Eleanor and F.D.R.  Since I love so many of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes, I found that interesting and surprising, too.

Works Referenced

Carol Felsenth.  2003.  The Life and Times of Alice Roosevelt Longworth.  New York, NY:  St. Martin's Griffin

Kimmelman, Leslie.  2009.  Mind Your Manners, Alice Roosevelt!  Ill. By Adam Gustavson.  Atlanta: GA:  Peachtree Publishers.

Vardell, Sylvia.  2008.  Children's Literature in Action.  Westport, CT:  Libraries Unlimited.

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