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Once Upon a Time, in a Land Called USA

Publishing* Lynne Cheney teams up with an artist from Southern California on a book to educate kids (and adults) about America's history.


NEW YORK — Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, set out to write a book about the history of the United States that would resonate with children from coast to coast. It was to be a gift to her three grandchildren and all the children she meets almost daily as she travels around the country.

"We're so privileged to live in this country that we should know the story of how we got to be so fortunate," Cheney said.

Even with her background as a former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and as self-described perennial student of American history, Cheney said she learned quite a bit when researching "America: A Patriotic Primer" (Simon & Schuster).

The original intent was to create a kids' book, Cheney said, "but the more we worked on it, the more we began to think that we loved it so much maybe other grown-ups might too." She added, "It's a curious fact that John Adams thought we'd celebrate our country's birthday on July 2 .... That's the day they voted on the resolution for independence."

Cheney hopes compelling characters such as Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Martin Luther King Jr. and real-life drama will encourage children's enthusiasm for stories. "We [adults] all know how the story came out, we know that the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were the winners in the end, that the drive for American independence succeeded," she said. "But if you start with little kids and explain to them that this wasn't a powerful country and we didn't have much by way of an army or a navy, and we decided that we were going to go up against the strongest military force in the world then, it's a David-and-Goliath story."

The book, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser of Newport Beach, is essentially an alphabet book, with each letter standing for an idea or an ideal--"C is for the Constitution that binds us together"; "F is for Freedom and the Flag that we fly"; and "V is for the Valor shown by those who've kept us free."

When it came to the illustrations, which cram historical facts onto each page with a lighthearted touch, Glasser saw "T is for Tolerance" as one of the biggest challenges. Glasser said she consulted with her sister and chief researcher, Jacqueline, about what really takes tolerance. They came up with a young aspiring musician who has more enthusiasm than talent playing the cymbals and driving another percussionist crazy. But there they are, standing next to each other, each allowed to do his own thing. The "T" page is bordered with small pictures of different holiday celebrations, from Mormon Pioneer Day to Presidents Day. "I wanted to show how we celebrate side by side Ramadan and Easter," said Glasser.

The same was true of G, as in "G is for God." "God was a sensitive page to do. We wanted this to be a book for everyone," Glasser said. But then a picture came to her, one that could be from New York or Main Street, USA: a temple next to a Baptist church next to a mosque. "This is how we live," she observed. Glasser's idea for the cover, five children planting a flagpole in a field of flowers, was inspired by the image she saw on television on Sept. 11 of the three firefighters raising a flag amid the ruins of the World Trade Center. The scene was more than a little reminiscent of the famous 1945 photograph of American soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima. Glasser borrowed an issue of Life magazine that featured the photo from the N.Y. Public Library and used it as reference.

The book was in the works before Sept. 11, Cheney said, but explaining the preciousness and price of freedom took on more meaning after the terrorist attacks. She wants to encourage children and parents to see the country beyond their hometown. She wants them to see and experience what each state has to offer.

"On the 'H' and 'I' page [for 'Heroes' and 'Ideals'], look at all these places you can visit: Sitting Bull's grave, or the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington [Va.] or the Alamo; these are places heroes are recognized. The Civil Rights Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, Mount Rushmore. There are great places all across the country where you can visit and become more informed and get caught up in some of the excitement that is American history."

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