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Elections and our government -- in words a third grader can understand!

 Who is eligible to run for the United States presidency? What exactly is the Electoral College? How does a law come into existence? Even the most simplified answers to these questions can seem totally incomprehensible to young students. However, two new children's books from one of the directors of the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C., help make the complex workings of the government accessible, understandable, and -- believe it or not -- fun!


Book Cover Image With Election Day approaching, classrooms will be filled with lessons on the presidency, the federal government, and the election process. The problem for many elementary-school teachers is that such concepts can seem abstract, confusing, and dull to students. Two new books written by Syl Sobel and published by Barron's Educational Series will help teachers bring those concepts to life for their students!


An insider's view

Syl Sobel, an attorney and a former newspaper reporter, is currently the director of communications for the Federal Judicial Center -- the agency responsible for education, training, and policy research for the judicial branch of the U.S. government. He is also the father of two daughters. As he explained to Education World:


"I tell my girls that my job is to 'make books' for the U.S. courts. About two years ago, my older daughter (then 7) and I were reading an article in the newspaper about the U.S. government, and she asked me, 'Daddy, can you make a book for me on how the U.S. government works?' I figured I could do that. "

Sobel's original 12-page booklet was eventually expanded and refined. About a year and half after the project began, How the U.S. Government Works was published.

Whether it is due to Sobel's experience as a government employee or as a parent (or perhaps both), he brings a welcome clarity and simplicity to rather complex subjects. Topics covered include the three branches of government, the responsibilities of the U.S. president, sources and uses of tax dollars, and how laws come into being. The simple drawings by illustrator Pam Tanzey, which include basic charts and an overhead view of the various government buildings in Washington, D.C., contribute to the non-intimidating tone of the book.

The underlying idea running throughout How the U.S. Government Works is that the president and other elected officials work for the people. In addition, in a chapter titled "Your Job," Sobel emphasizes the responsibilities of the citizens to do their part by electing good leaders, serving in the military, paying taxes, and becoming actively involved in government.


Choosing a leader

As a follow-up to his first book, Sobel has written Presidential Elections and Other Cool Facts. Again, he did not have to search too far to find his inspiration. As he told Education World:


"Shortly before the first book came out, my younger daughter (then 5) said: 'Daddy, it's your turn to write a book for me.' I asked her what she wanted me to write about. She said 'cool things about presidents.' I told her that might be a very big book and suggested we narrow it down to a book about presidential elections and cool things about a few presidents."

Book Cover Image This book describes the constitutional requirements for presidential elections, eligibility rules applying to voters, the Electoral College, and interesting facts about select presidents. Perhaps because elections naturally imply a certain element of excitement, or because anecdotes about real people are used, Presidential Elections and Other Cool Facts is actually more entertaining than its predecessor. Mixed in with the text, which discusses in logical order the different facets of presidential elections, are numerous sidebars describing such diverse topics as presidents who won the popular vote but lost the election, third-party candidates, the order of succession in the event that something happens to the president, first ladies, and vice presidents who went on to become presidents.

In deciding which historical details to include, Sobel tried to stay mindful of the types of information that children like to know:


"When kids talk about history, they seem to want to know 'what it was like' and to try to imagine themselves 'back then.' I try, in my books, to use images that help kids understand what things were like during the historical time I'm writing about and to help them place themselves in that time. I think kids view most subjects in terms of 'What does this mean for me?' and I try to explain our system of government to them in those terms, as well as provide some interesting facts that help them think of historical figures as real people."

Illustrated throughout by Jill Wood, Presidential Elections and Other Cool Facts has the same comfortable, child-friendly look of Sobel's first book. The same attention to detail is likewise evident here. In spite of Sobel's attention to detail, readers will find a few typos that will be corrected in subsequent printings. But creative teachers can turn those mistakes into a fun lesson that challenges students to "find the mistake in the art on page 20." (There is a discrepancy between the artwork of the November calendar and the text describing when Election Day actually occurs.)

Both How the U.S. Government Works and Presidential Elections and Other Cool Facts are valuable tools for elementary level students. They offer complete, accessible introductions to the workings of our government. Sobel downplays somewhat his own role in the creation of these books:


"I wish I could take credit for coming up with the idea to write these books, but the subject matter and titles of both books came from my daughters. When I told this to my editor, she said: 'You should have had more kids.'"

The books highlighted this week are available in most bookstores. If you are unable to locate the book, ask your bookseller to order it for you or contact the publisher directly:

  • How the U.S. Government Works, written by Syl Sobel and illustrated by Pam Tanzey and Presidential Elections and Other Cool Facts, written by Syl Sobel and illustrated by Jill Wood, are published by Barron's Educational Series, Inc., 250 Wireless Boulevard, Hauppauge, NY 11788.


Lauren P. Gattilia
Education World®
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Updated 02/15/2016