A children's book recounts a popular legend
Ignatius Press in the US has produced a charmingly illustrated children’s book: George Washington: His Legacy of Faith, Character and Courage, written and illustrated by Demi. Written for ages seven and upwards, it does not patronise children with deliberately simplified prose. Its purpose is to show young Americans the kind of man who led his country in the War of Independence and who became its first president. Children are highly impressionable and the aim here is to make them think about the qualities needed for leadership (rather than perhaps, for becoming a “celebrity”?)
This suggests the book is akin to those pious uplifting Victorian tracts for children which were simply deadly dull morality tales. It isn’t. Washington’s life displayed enough resourcefulness, integrity and courage – not to speak of the adventures he experienced and the challenges he faced in the largely unexplored country in which he lived – for his story to be exciting in its own right.
Demi, the author, has already written and illustrated children’s books on Mother Teresa, St Francis, Our Lady and President Abraham Lincoln. I asked her how she selected her subjects and she told me she thinks “the purpose of children’s books is to inspire, educate, set examples and give hope to young people – so I like to choose subjects that do precisely that.”
I was struck by an incident recounted in the book, when Washington, fighting the British during the winter of 1777-1778, was in dire straits: his soldiers were ill-equipped; supplies and ammunition were very low. As he prayed for divine intervention in his freezing quarters, Demi writes that “According to a popular legend…he had a vision of a beautiful and luminous lady. She foretold that the Americans would be victorious and that a new and great nation would be born.”
Demi tells me she was inspired to write about Washington when she first read of this intriguing “celestial vision”. Its source, she says, is “Washington’s own testimony to Officer Anthony Sherman and to reporter Wesley Bradshaw, first published in The National Tribune, volume 4, No 12, December 1880, and preserved in the Library of Congress in Washington DC.”
As we know from a childhood incident in which he confessed to his father that he had chopped down a cherry tree (retold in the book), Washington couldn’t tell a lie; thus, make of it what one will, this “legend” has the ring of truth about it, according to Washington’s own recorded account.
I knew very little about Washington’s life before I read the book. What particular features of his character does Demi most admire? She tells me they are his “transcendental nature” and his “deeply held spiritual beliefs, which formed a character that was a beacon of light to all who knew him: his faith, morality, patience, humility discipline and vigour”. She reminds me that he was famously described as “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen” and by the King of England, George III, as “the greatest man who ever lived.”
In the book there are many examples of Washington praying for guidance. What were his beliefs? Demi sees him as a devout Christian and man of deep faith. He was also friendly to local Catholics “shown by his very large donation for the construction of the first Catholic church in Virginia.”
The illustrations are eye-catching: delightful in their detail and their use of colour. What are the author’s artistic influences? Surprisingly, Demi tells me she has been a lifelong student of Chinese art, especially “the crystal-clear line, the power of colour and the unsurpassed beauty of the Sung dynasty miniatures.”
She goes on: “One of the earliest manuals on Chinese painting says, “If you really think about it, every moment of the light and dark is a miracle.” In early China, she says, “painting was regarded as an act of magic. Everything possessed Ch’i, or the essence of life that pervaded the universe, and the magical painter, through his creative powers, could show, distil and celebrate this life or Ch’i on paper.”
Finally, I want to know what children’s books have most influenced her. She responds immediately: “Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking-Glass. Lewis Carroll’s March Hare says, “You should say what you mean…which is not the same thing as you mean what you say…”And his Humpty Dumpty says, “When I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
Someone should give President Trump a present of this book: something for him to tweet about.