Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Booknote: The Great American Documents, Volume 1: 1620-1830

Ruth Ashby and Ernie Colón, The Great American Documents, Volume 1: 1620-1830. New York; Hill and Wang, 2014. ISBN: 9780809094608.

This book caught my eye initially because it is illustrated by Ernie Colón, who also illustrated The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, which I have read. Ruth Ashby is a new author to me. This was a neat book. Though I see it mainly for young people, this is a book that anyone can read. If the last time you learned about things like the Mayflower Compact, the Federalist Papers, or Marbury v. Madison was in school, then this book can be a good review of those works and more.

The book covers 20 documents ranging from legal documents to political speeches to court cases and even songs. It covers the historical period of 1620 (the arrival of the first immigrants) to 1830 (ending with the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears). The book does not present the documents in full. What it does is give you the history and context at a document's time; it also includes brief excerpts of the documents. We learn why a particular document was significant and what it did to help shape what would become the United States of America. Other documents are moments of shame, not exactly the best moments in U.S. history. The documents presented cover a certain time period, and in addition, the book presents scenes up to the present day to show how some documents, such as the Bill of Rights, still have effects on society today. Though the book does simplify things a bit, and at times can be a little too optimistic and "feel good," it at least does not gloss over the bad parts completely. Even Uncle Sam, the book's narrator, facepalms a time or two.

Speaking of narrators, Ashby chooses Uncle Sam to narrate this story. As written in the note at the end of the book, "as a universally recognized spokesman for the United States, Uncle Sam is a natural as a narrator of the country's history" (150). That narrative frame does work to bring the story together.

Colón's artwork is very good and colorful. He has a good ability to blend in soft humor here and there as well as maintain the solemn moments. The art gives us a colorful and reflective journey through American history.

I wanted the journey to continue, but this is only volume 1. Volume 2 is announced to cover 1831 to 1900, and I will be looking for it. While not perfect, if this series maintains a sense of balance (i.e. not just make it into some triumphalist monument, but instead keep a balance of positive and negative), this should be an excellent project overall, maybe even one I would add to my personal collection. For public libraries, this is a definite must-have. For academic libraries with a graphic novels collection, a recreational reading collection, and/or a children's/YA collection, this would make a good addition.

I am giving it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

I borrowed this one from my local public library, Madison County (KY) Public Library, Berea branch.

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