You probably know Ken Jennings as the game show record breaker who won $2.52 million on Jeopardy! and then became a best-selling author. Most recently, Jennings has turned his attention to writing books for kids--really great informative and FUN books in a series called the Junior Genius Guides. The first two titles were Maps and Geography (a pick for Best Nonfiction Children's Books of February ) and Greek Mythology. Embarrassing fact about myself: I stink at geography. But when I read Jennings' book, I not only learned new facts but they were interesting enough that I found myself parroting tidbits to family members, including my seven-year-old.
The latest book in the series, Ken Jennings' Junior Genius Guide to U.S. Presidents, just released and once again I find myself a fan. Did you know that President Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday? I did not. But it's a fun fact that I've now committed to memory. In the guest post below, Jennings talks a little about why he chose Presidents and five of them that didn't quite make the cut for his book.
The third installment in my series of Junior Genius Guides for kids is out this week, and this one is about U.S. presidents. When I’m writing these books, the audience I always have in mind is me at nine years old: curious, fact-obsessed, and always on the lookout for books that didn’t talk down to me. (Kids aren’t dummies. They can tell the difference between smart, funny books and “smart,” “funny” books.)
When I was nine years old, I was particularly obsessed with U.S. presidents. Something about the mystique of the office (the private airplane, the Easter Egg rolls, the giant statues carved into mountains) combined with the wealth of available trivia (Millard Fillmore? We had a president named “Millard”?) spoke to me. It wasn’t political. It was just . . . American.
Let me introduce you to a few people who are not in my book . . . though they almost were. On the all-star team of Chief Executives, these are the alternates, the water boys. They’re more obscure than Millard Fillmore, but they got even closer to the presidency than Al Gore.
- John Hanson. America’s first president as a newly formed nation was not George Washington. Before the Constitution was ratified, when the U.S. government was still organized under the Articles of Confederation, eight men were presidents of the Continental Congress. The first was an otherwise obscure Maryland merchant named John Hanson. Nice enough guy, but you won’t be seeing him on the dollar bill any time soon.
- David Rice Atchison. In 1849, Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday, so Sabbath-observing Zachary Taylor was sworn in a day late. (As was the style at the time.) If James Polk’s presidency ended at midnight on Saturday, but Taylor wasn’t sworn in until Monday, then who was president all day Sunday? Next in the line of succession was theoretically Missouri senator David Rice Atchison, who had been serving as President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Atchison spent the rest of his life boasting that he’d run the nation’s most honest administration, since he’d been asleep pretty much his entire (24-hour) term! Technically, though, his Senate term had ended at the same time Polk’s presidency did, so legal scholars agree that he was never really president.
- Benjamin Wade. In 1868, during Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate was a Radical Republican from Ohio named Benjamin Wade. Wade was so sure he’d accede to the presidency that he even started assembling his cabinet. But the thought of the abrasive Wade in the presidency scared senators so badly that, though largely convinced Johnson was guilty, they failed to impeach him by one vote. Wade had to stop measuring curtains for the White House.
- Samuel Tilden. In the 1876 election, Governor Tilden of New York won the popular vote easily, but four states had disputed electoral votes. Tilden needed just one of those states to take the White House, but a commission of eight Republicans and seven Democrats voted 8-7 to give all four disputed states to their man, Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes was sworn in secretly in the Red Room of the White House, for fear that a public inauguration would turn into a riot.
- Sir Anthony Hopkins. The former Hannibal Lecter has been Oscar-nominated not once but twice for playing U.S. presidents: Richard Nixon in Nixon and John Quincy Adams in Amistad. Sadly, Hopkins was born in Wales, and is therefore constitutionally ineligible for the presidency.