John, Paul, George & Ben by Lane Smith is a hilarious book, although the humor's really for the grown ups. All of the funny parts my kids didn't really understand & they definitely didn't understand the historical pieces. That's ok. I have no problem claiming this one all for myself (actually, even though they don't get this book, they still love it & ask me to read it).
In the book, we see John Hancock, Paul Revere, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin & Thomas Jefferson as their younger, quirky selves. John likes to write his name really, really big. Paul shouts all the time because he's been ringing too many bells. George does serious damage to his family's tree population. Ben has all these oddball sayings. Tom always does things his own way, which doesn't always work out for him.
I love this book for two reasons: Lane Smith has a great sense of humor and the illustrations are awesome. Take the part on Thomas Jefferson, for example. Mr. Douglas, Tom's teacher, asks the class "to make birdhouses by gluing macaroni to ye olde balsa wood." We see Tom taking those instructions one step further & building a mini version of Monticello. The class is then instructed to make a tree by using their handprint, but Tom drafts a beautiful drawing of a tree instead. Throughout the text, the author weaves in the words life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness & it all comes to a funny ending when Tom gets sent to time out in the corner while "the other students pursued lunch." All throughout the book, there are parts like this that will make you (the grown up) chuckle.
I also love the illustrations. Each one of our "lads" has his portrait done (I especially love Tom's rather snooty, precocious pose). Throughout the book, the colors are chipped & cracked, the portraits hang against a wooden background. Everything is supposed to look a little aged. I find Lane Smith's illustration style to be friendly & approachable.
It's funny that for a children's book, there's a subplot! Well, I don't know if you could call it a subplot or not, but there's a definite Beatles theme going on here. You probably already noticed it in the title (just replace Ben with Ringo & there you go). The story opens with this: "once there were four lads...." and we see them in a pose that is remarkably similar to the Abbey Road cover. Later in the story, the reader is asked "say, you want a revolution?" Even the author's dedication is a nod to the Beatles: "I get by with a little help from my friends..." The Beatles references are subtle, but they add a lot to the charm and humor of the book.
I mentioned that my Bachsters don't understand the understated humor of the story (or even when the humor is pretty overt). But don't let that stop you from reading it to your kiddos, because there's a really nice, unexpected benefit to reading this book with your kids: you can teach them a bit about history! The Bachsters and I chatted for a while about the Revolutionary War and the founding fathers. I told them all about my 8th grade trip to Washington DC & what it's like to view the Declaration of Independence & my visit to Mount Vernon, among all the other things we did on the trip. Not too many children's books can launch you & your kids into such rich discussion. I also like that there's a true or false section in the back, so we can see which parts of the story were true & which were made up to give us a good laugh (Thomas Jefferson's teacher really was Mr. Douglas)!
This book is lots of fun & good laughs & some history thrown in for good measure. I think you'll really enjoy it.