A Lesson in Presidential Politics

Children's book character campaigns to "make life fair."

October 15, 2008, 2:52 PM

Oct. 30, 2008 — -- Dozens of seated third-graders crowd the floor for story time, their faces tilted in earnest concentration.

But this isn't a typical children's book. It's a lesson in presidential politics.

Leading today's lesson is Kate Feiffer, author of several children's books and her latest: "President Pennybaker."

With she and the kids gathered at Politics and Prose, a bookstore in leafy Northwest Washington, D.C., Feiffer is yearning to get this crowd to read, have some fun and even learn a thing or two about the 2008 election.

"President Pennybaker" is the tale of Luke Pennybaker, a young boy who throws his hat in the ring, declaring he will run for president of the United States. His platform isn't "Change" or "Country First."

His simple platform is "to make life fair."

He's not a member of the Republican Party, but he's not a Democrat either. Pennybaker is a member of "the Birthday Party."

The story focuses on a boy who will do anything to get out of cleaning his room -- even run for president.

And with the historic 2008 presidential election just days away, the release of Feiffer's latest work provided the opportunity for the author to travel the country and campaign for the fictional Pennybaker and her nonfictional goal of getting kids engaged in politics.

This mother from Massachusetts says she likes to engage young readers in lively conversation, asking them questions like, "Why would someone run for president?"

The children's responses often belie their young age.

"They want to build more houses for people who have them!" one student said.

"To make our world a better place," said another.

"To help out people who are less fortunate."

Of course, ask how a candidate should declare he or she is running, and you'll also get some interesting answers.

"Skywriting," said one wide-eyed student.

"Shout really, really loud from a rooftop," said another.

And for Feiffer, there was no better way to end her visit with a group of children like the one in the bookstore, than to host a mock election. But there was one rule: You have to be younger than 18 to vote.

Here was the lineup on one of Feiffer's typical ballots: Barack Obama and John McCain, Luke Pennybaker, Mom and Dad.

More often than not, the real Republican and Democratic nominees got the most votes in Feiffer's nonscientific balloting. But Feiffer has noticed a geographic trend in her limited tour: the farther north, the more votes Obama gets; the farther south she travels, the more votes McCain gets, she says.

Feiffer has hosted "voting parties" in Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

There are, in fact, several children's books and classroom-based programs that aim to teach kids more about political campaigns.

One was written by McCain's daughter. Entitled "My Dad, John McCain," it tells her father's life story for an audience of 5- to 10-year-olds.

According to the front flap, the story shows us "the public John McCain and the personal John McCain in a way we've never seen before -- making this American hero come to life before young eyes."

Scholastic News, which targets third- to eighth-graders (10 to 14 years old), has been putting out a weekly national news magazine for 88 years. Its popular Election '08 home page (scholastic.com/election2008) includes campaign news, information on the candidates and an explanation of the electoral college, plus games and quizzes.

"We've always tried to present the outside world to kids in a way they will understand it," said Suzanne Freeman, executive editor of Scholastic News Online. "The election is an excellent opportunity to do that because you bring in so many different subjects: history, social studies, even math."

The site's online traffic has increased by 92 percent since the election in 2004; much of the increase has been due to the more than 200 news stories about the election featured on the site, most of them written by kid reporters. The two big issues for students in the 2008 election, according to Freeman, are the environment and, especially, the economy.

"These are issues kids feel on a daily basis. Kids are really the canaries in a coal mine when it comes to the economy. It's the things they love to do -- video games, certain trips -- that get cut first."

Scholastic will host a live webcast at noon Monday so that some members of its Kids Press Corps can talk about their experiences during this historic election.

"We're building citizens of tomorrow," Freeman said.

Back in Washington, Feiffer admits that she's learned a few lessons of her own on this book tour -- mix a bit of current events with some fun text and children will be "tuned in, engaged and interested."

"It gives me hope for the future," Feiffer said.

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