Saturday, March 16, 2013

First Mothers

March 16 - Today's post provided by Beverly Gherman, author,
 and Julie Downing, illustrator, of First Mothers

First, we'll hear from Beverly:

Julie and I began writing First Mothers as though it were a text book.  We included time lines for historical events of the day.  Then friends in a critique group said kids would not appreciate a factual book.  They would find it boring.  "Give them some fun," our friends said.  That's when Mary Ball Washington took over and added her sense of humor with constant comments throughout the book.  Our young readers tell us they like these comments from Mrs. Clinton, Mrs. Roosevelt, and especially Mary Ball Washington.

Many of the mothers worked hard in their homes and gardens.  They supported husbands in farming.  Mrs. Van Buren in her husband's tavern, Mrs. Adams in government.  Sarah Taylor taught her children how to read.  Hulda Hoover taught her son about voting while Sara Roosevelt was the first mother to vote for her son for president.  Mrs. Eisenhower taught her sons to run their farm.  Mrs. Carter joined the Peace Corps in India when she was sixty-eight.  After two years she returned to the States to help her son campaign for president.

Many of the mothers worked to create their own best talents.  Mrs. Hannah Nixon baked pies.  She began the day at 4 a.m., baked fifty pies and quickly sold them at the family's small gas station next to their home.

Rebekah Baines Johnson coached the school debate team and started poetry readings.  She also wrote for the weekly newspaper, which her husband bought for her.  She used her initials, RBJ, when she wrote articles in the paper.  That way no one knew she was Lyndon Johnson's mother.

Sara Roosevelt was the first mother to vote for her son Franklin for president.  She read about political situations and advised Franklin how he should follow those situations with the English prime minister.  She told Franklin he should have brought Churchill to see her.  She would have told him how to fight the war.

Abigail Adams wrote long letters to her husband, John.  She felt they should put public service ahead of their personal happiness.  She was the first woman to be both the wife and the mother of a president.  She never stopped reminding John that women deserved equal rights.  "Remember the Ladies," she wrote.  And she urged John to work to end slavery.

All of the presidential mothers were strong women who urged their sons to work hard for the sake of their country.

And now a word from Julie:

Most of the women depicted in First Mothers were not famous in their own right, and in some cases, even the most basic information such as the date of their birth and where they were born was not known. But all had an incredible amount of influence on their famous sons. The saying, "behind every great man is a woman" should say "behind every great man is his mother."

During our 3 years of research, Bev and I discovered the mothers were as varied as the presidents they raised. Some mothers came from wealthy families while others brought up their sons in poverty. A least a dozen mothers never learned to read or write while others were highly educated. There were mothers who doted on their sons and mothers who still offered their motherly advice even when their sons were in the Oval Office. Despite their differences, these 43 mothers and 1 stepmother seemed to have several things in common: they all valued education and many made great sacrifices to insure that the future presidents were well educated. They encouraged their sons to pursue their passion and respect hard work.

The challenge and pleasure of this project was getting to know the individual mothers and deciding how to show their personalities through both words and pictures. I was lucky to collaborate with Beverly. Most of the time the author and illustrator do not meet. but in the case of First Mothers,  Bev and I worked closely together. She researched the mothers and wrote biographies for each, then we would get together,  look over the information and decide which facts could be shown through the illustrations and which through the text. Often we passed the text back and worth, editing and rewriting, and Bev looked at all the cartoons and portraits as well. It is an unusual way for the author and illustrator to work, but I really enjoyed the collaborative process.

As far as Mary Washington,  she  practically inserted herself into the artwork. I was amazed to  learn that she was highly critical of her son and more than a little self centered. As a mother myself,  I know that sometimes parents can be a teeny bit competitive about their children, and I kept picturing what Mary Washington would have to say about the other mothers and their children. In the beginning I just doodled pictures of  Mary on the corners of my sketches and soon realized she should actually appear in the finished art. After Bev showed me the text for Sara  Roosevelt and it was obvious how bossy she was, I imagined she would not allow Mary Washington to be the only one to comment, so she joined the chorus.

I admired many of the women I drew. I thought Lillian Carter was a terrific mother, warm, no nonsense, energetic and independent. She and her husband had a happy marriage (not true of all the mothers) and even though they were not wealthy, had a happy family life. A number of the mothers impressed me with how hard they worked to make sure their son's were educated and got ahead. Betty Jackson, Maria Van Buren, Polly Johnson, and Hannah Nixon all sacrificed a great deal to make sure their sons became successful. Nellie Reagan brought her son Ron up  to be thoughtful of those less fortunate. Even though the family had no money, she took in recent parolees so they could experience life in a home.  By the time I finished the book I did feel that you do not need to be born into wealth, and that no matter what your background,  anyone can become president. As long as you listen to your mother!

Editor's Note:

Beverly Gherman has written biographies about authors, dancers, presidents, scientists and, of course, artists. Her engaging child-accessible style has won her many fans and many awards, including a California Library Beatty Award, a Booklist Editor's Choice, an SCBWI Golden Kite Honor, a Smithsonian Notable Book, and an Oppenheimer Toy Portfolio Gold Award. Beverly lives in San Francisco.

Julie Downing has written and/or illustrated over 30 picture books and has received a Parents’ Choice Award and a New York Public Library Best Books Award. She lives in San Francisco, California. Visit her at 


  1. This is such an interesting topic! My mom works as an adult ed teacher and I'm sure this will be a book she will add to her collection to read to "her" residents.

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