Big George: How a shy boy became President Washington

11May10

By Anne Rockwell
Illustrated by Matt Phelan

Rockwell and Phelan present us with a young George Washington and unfold to the reader many formative events of his life. Learning about famous historical figures brings out their humanity. So often, we put them on a pedestal like a demi-god, and forget that these great men and women from our history books are just like us. In my own conjuring up of George Washington, I tend to imagine a stoic figure with wooden teeth, white hair, and something to do with a cherry tree. Rockwell and Phelen avoid these typical associations with this great man, and show us a fresh side to the father of our country.

In this biography, we learn that George Washington as a persona was often balancing his shy disposition with a hot temper. We meet a young school-aged George who is just coping with his father’s death, and are taken all the way through his time growing up, fighting in the French Indian war, his marriage and life as a farmer, his involvement in the American Revolution, and his subsequent Presidency.

Rockwell skillful weaves a story that Washington remembers reading as a young man throughout her telling of his life. It is the story Cincinnatus, “a Roman farmer who put down his plow to become a leader when his people called on him, and returned to the plow to become a farmer again when he was no longer needed to leader.” This story is revisited during the French-Indian war as Washington returns to life on his farm, and again after his terms as President.

Phelen’s illustrations bring the story to life and are what let us really feel like we are getting to know George Washington. The medium used appears to be a combination of pencil and watercolor. While this medium appears detailed and vivid, but maintain a nostalgic quality through the sketch-like technique used . The thing that I find most striking about Phelen’s illustrations is his ability to capture such emotion and sentimentality in his portrayals. After Washington’s brother passes away, who we learn had become like a second father to him, Phelan shows us a distraught Washington sitting in front of the fire holding his brother’s sword. The arrangement of the composition causes the reader to feel uneasy, with a heavy emphasis on the left hand side of the page. However, a strong and dark horizontal mantle above the fire place reassures us that Washington will overcome this tragic loss. Phelen accomplishes all of this without ever showing us Washington’s face.
Phelen also proves his ability to skillfully depiction of light and movement – for instance, on one of the spreads we see a ballroom scene that appears largely gray with highlights of golds that show us both how the light is coming from candlelight chandeliers, but also strategically directed to emphasize the charm that Washington had amongst the ladies and his ability to steal the “spotlight” in a room.

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