Aaron and Alexander: The Most Famous Duel in American History written and illustrated by Don Brown
I’m going to do something different. I usually include the promotional text before I get into my review, but I noticed a significant difference between what appears online versus what appears on the dust jacket. I think it’s important to share both. First, here’s the online text used by botrh the publisher and retailers.
Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were both fierce patriots during the Revolutionary War, but the politics of the young United States of America put them in constant conflict. Their extraordinary story of bitter fighting and resentment culminates in their famous duel. For young patriots who may not yet know the shocking and tragic story, Aaron and Alexander captures the spirit of these two great men who so valiantly served their country and ultimately allowed their pride and ego to cause their demise.
Sensational, right? Fierce, manly, timeless. I would never buy this book for my children. At least at their current ages. Now here’s the dust jacket.
Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were both orphaned at a young age, and they both became successful lawyers. The both fought in the Revolutionary War. But the politics of the young United States of America put these Founding Fathers in constant conflict. Theirs is a story of passion, patriotism, and pride, which culminates in the most famous duel in American history. Despite their similarities, it seemed the world was not big enough for both Aaron and Alexander, yet the outcome of their rivalry forever links their names.
Okay, honestly, dueling isn’t an appropriate subject for our preschooler or our infant. I still wouldn’t buy this book. Not yet anyway. But it does seem more thoughtful, more teachable.
The latter is what you see browsing in the store, and to me it encourages opening the book and taking a look. The former targets the history nerd, or teacher, with something exciting to share.
Anyway, if you’ve got some basic recall of high school civics, you probably know that Aaron Burr shot, or maybe even assassinated, the guy on the twenty dollar bill. If you spent any time online or watched late night television in 2015, chances are you know a little more than that. Have you heard about the Broadway musical Hamilton? There’s a cast recording. I highly recommend it. Our preschooler asked if we could listen to it while we fell asleep the other night.
And that’s why I’m reviewing this book. I checked it out from the library in a pile of books and audiobooks related to the principals. I used to look for the best book or whatever. Now I just read everything.
Luckily I took a look inside before sharing it with our child. And luckier still the art on the cover was a turn off. I can’t tell whether the style wasn’t attractive or whether it was overly evocative. Both are true, of course, in the eyes of a preschooler. Don Brown’s muted watercolors and soft lines are worlds away from the cartoonish primaries of the Little Golden Books we’ve been reading. But just look up there. Those two people are clearly going to to try to kill each other. They are both bad guys.
That itself is a sharp contrast to what’s in the book. Inside, they’re often so similar it hurts. And this is true even if you’re reading one of the eight books cited in the bibliography. Allow me a digression. Nonfiction picture books have bibliographies. Some have footnotes. Our children don’t get it yet, and we skip over them. But some day soon I’ll get to answer questions about them. Anyway, the range of reference material is good.
So good, in fact, that what I expected to be essentially Hamilton propaganda is quite fair and balanced. I have no idea how to turn this story into a children’s book. I can barely discuss it with people who have some background. But Brown has made an admirable attempt.
In a few years, the nuance on display will provoke some interesting conversations, Right now if there’s going to be fighting there needs to be a bad guy. An obvious one like Darth Vader, or better yet Darth Maul. Not this.
I can’t explain dueling or why “Despicable” caused one or what that was actually code for at the turn of the nineteenth century and then why that, at that time, was something negative. Just, “is that blood?” and the subsequent questions are enough to shelve this one for awhile.
But, if you’re adventurous, or interested, or Clint Eastwood, maybe you’ll give it a shot. Too soon?
Recommended for fans of Hamilton, Daffy Duck, and folks who let their kids watch R-rated movies.