Friday, May 13, 2011

Book Review of Alexander Hamilton: The Outsider by Jean Fritz

By Jean Fritz
Middle-grade Non-fiction
Ages 9 and up
(Published in 2011 by Putnam Juvenile)

When I saw this book sitting on the "New Children's Books" table at our library, I snatched it up for 3 reasons (well, 4 reasons, but the fourth reason was purely fluff):
1.  It was written by Jean Fritz, one of my favorite historical writers.
2.  It is about a man who definitely deserves to not be forgotten, but is not much mentioned beyond a line or two in primary and middle school history books. Alexander Hamilton was an honest, passionate man who played an integral role in how the economic system of the United States government was set up. It's amazing to think that a man who came from such humble and illegitimate beginnings would later rise to become a powerful, influential figure in a newly emerging America, a country he adopted and for which he fought passionately.
3.  I knew that Hamilton, our nation's first Secretary of the Treasury, formed the Revenue Cutter Service, the forerunner of our modern US Coast Guard. (A Coastie can get into real trouble for not knowing that!) And yes, there is a Coast Guard Cutter (a 378 footer) named after him.
4.  I loved the cover. (Told you it was a fluff reason.)
I feel strongly that children need to read biographies of real people who had a hand in shaping various aspects of society and the world as we know it. They need real life examples of real people, living and dead, good and bad, to learn from. But children reading about adults can sometimes be problematic, given the duality of human nature. Even the best among us can have feet of clay, or moments of clay.
Such is the case of Alexander Hamilton. The man is an example of honesty, hard work, determination and patriotism. But he made his mistakes. I appreciated the way Jean Fritz managed to honor Hamilton's achievements and life, while still including his weaknesses and failures. She doesn't dwell on his weaknesses, but she certainly doesn't dismiss them. She gets the information** across without overdoing the details.

Obviously then, I think the book requires a certain level of maturity, as it deals frankly and matter-of-factly, but tastefully, with some mature themes.

(While I don't think it would "scar" her to read it, I wouldn't want my 7 year-old daughter reading it, even though she is capable of reading it. I don't think it would appeal to younger-but-capable readers, anyway. There's is too much that they wouldn't understand, due to insufficient life experience. But obviously each parent needs to make that call.)

Lest you get the wrong impression from what I've written, let me unequivocally state that I really liked reading this excellent book about one of my country's Founding Fathers, and I learned a lot.

**(SPOILER ALERT) For example, his illegitimacy and later his affair with a woman outside his marriage. The reason this information is included is because the repercussions of both had far-reaching consequences to him politically and morally.


  1. I, also, like Jean Fritz. Have you read her titles like "Will You Sign Here, John Hancock?" or "And Then What Happened, Paul Revere?" There's a whole bunch of them! I think they're great!

  2. Yes, we have read those. My girls think they're great, too. We are still making our way through all her books.
    When my first two were babies, I read *The Cabin Faced West*. And I love her autobiography *Homesick*.

  3. Sounds like a great biography. I like Jean Fritz a lot, too. I couldn't have resisted this one, either. :-)