Just in time for Presidents Day in February, local children’s author,
Katherine House’s latest book — “The White House for Kids: A History of Home, Office, and National Symbol” (Chicago Review Press, 2014, $16.95, ages 9 and up) — hit bookstores. This is her second offering from the Chicago Review Press. The first was “Lighthouses for Kids” in 2008.
In the book, House uses stories, photographs and activities to bring history alive by portraying not only the history of the White House, but what the president’s job entails and what it would be like living there if you were a kid in the first family. To learn more about Katherine House’s books, visit her website at KatherineLHouse.com.
We sat down with House to talk about her latest book:
Q: You studied economics in college and wrote newspaper and magazine articles for adults. At what point did you decide to write non-fiction for children?
A: I didn’t have an “aha” moment one day, nor did I grow up wanting to be a children’s writer. But sometime during my career as a business writer, I found myself drawn to the beautiful books in the children’s section of the bookstore. I decided I wanted to try writing picture books, especially historical fiction picture books. I didn’t have any luck doing that at the time. Gradually, I realized that writing non-fiction might be a better fit for me.
Q: Washington, D.C., is where you grew up and remains a city dear to your heart. How do you think D.C. has shaped you as a person and as a writer?
A: Growing up in the Washington metro area helped spark my interest in U.S. history. My parents took me and my sisters to see the outdoor Christmas trees at the White House. News about the presidents and the federal government made the local news broadcast, as well as the national news. Inauguration Day meant a day off from school, and I remember watching inaugural parades on TV.
I also was fortunate that my parents loved history and were passionate about sharing that interest with us. In the Washington area, they pointed out connections to various presidents, and on vacations, we visited historical sites.
Q: Your new book is just beautiful, packed with wonderful photographs of the White House, as well as presidents, first ladies, children, and pets that have lived there. You’ve also included photos showing intense moments of U.S. history decided within those walls. What do you hope kids will glean from non-fiction offerings such as your book?
A: Thanks so much. After reading my book, I hope readers will realize that presidents are ordinary people with an extraordinary job and responsibilities. I tried to convey the human side of living and working in the White House, focusing on the benefits, as well as the burdens. Living in a fancy house might seem glamorous to kids, but I point out the downside of being a first kid, too. My hope is that readers start to see presidents as more than boring men in suits. For example, I took my book to my daughter’s school. A group of fifth- and sixth-graders was drawn to the photo of President Ford in his bathing suit. He looked so, well, un-presidential to them — not in a disrespectful way, just in a human way. I reveled in that moment.
Q: Your book required painstaking research. How did you go about amassing it all? Were there any surprise sources you stumbled upon in an unexpected way, whether a fact, photo, or story that excited you?
A: Like many non-fiction writers, research is my favorite part of the process. In fact, it’s hard to know when to stop researching and start writing. I used a wide variety of sources for this project. I pored over books written by former White House employees, including maids and chefs. They offered some of the best behind-the-scenes accounts. I read memoirs written by presidents, first ladies and first kids. I watched documentaries that included interviews with former presidents. My favorite stories were ones of first kids, being kids. I especially loved to read about and write about the mischievous antics of Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln’s young boys.
Q: You provide 21 activities for kids that relate to the White House and the president’s role there. One of them is writing a letter to the president. Have you ever written to any presidents and, if so, did you get a reply?
A: No; I never have, although I’ve considered it. But I certainly hope that activity will inspire readers to write the president and think about the president’s actions and how everyday people are affected by what happens in the White House.Wendy Henrichs is a children’s author living in Iowa City.