George Washington’s Teeth

GWT cover

The Children’s Literature Council gave an award in 2004 for “Creative Collaboration in Non-Fiction” for George Washington’s Teeth to Madeleine Comora and Deborah Chandra.


* In a clever approach to history, Chandra and Comora string together spry stanzas describing the dental difficulties that plagued George Washington. Rhyming verse explains how the general’s rotten teeth gradually fall out during the Revolutionary War: “George crossed the icy Delaware / With nine teeth in his mouth. / In that cold and pitchy dark, / Two more teeth came out!” Cole complements this verse by rendering a sly watercolor twist on Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting George Washington Crossing the Delware, in a full-spread treatment: Washington still stands in quiet dignity, but the boatmen are grinning. By the time Washington is elected president, just two teeth remain in his mouth. Kids will love the details, such as the way Washington uses a pair of his molars to fashion a mold from which the dentist makes a set of dentrues (these are carved from hippopotamus ivory, and even shown, in a photograph in the afterward). Infusing his bustling watercolor vignettes with comic hyperbole, Cole easily keeps pace with the lighthearted narrative. One especially funny image shows the president sprawled on the floor, legs in the air, after viewing a newly painted portrait. An annotated timeline at the end includes quotes from the leader’s letters and diaries chronicling his relentless efforts to hide his dental problems and the extent to which they caused him chronic pain and embarrassment. A highly palatable historical morsel. All ages.

—Starrred, Publishers Weekly

* Second only to kids’ curiosity about George Washington and the cherry tree may be their interest in his teeth. Did the prez wear wooden dentures? Chandra and Comora set the record straight with wit, verve and a generous amount of sympathy for poor Washington and his dental woes. Unfurling smoothly against a backdrop of Washington’s career as soldier and president, the tale goes forward in sprightly, read-aloud rhyme that never
falters: “Poor George has two teeth in his mouth / The day the votes came in. / The people had a President / But one afriaid to grin.” And Cole is at his absolute best here, totally at ease with human gesture and expression. Each spread is a tableau-like scene (or scenes) filled with costumed characters busily engaged in humorously visualizing the actual history. The color palette and energy of the art harks back to Cole’s Buttons (1999), but there’s much more detail and movement in these pictures, which work well as amusing preparation for the more sedately illustrated, annotated time line of George’s dental decay that precedes a full roundup of historical sources the authors used in telling the tale. This is history for youngsters that will stick; it’s wild and fun and factual, without a trace of mockery.
—Starred, Booklist

* In 28 rhymed, four-line stanzas, Chandra and Comora tell the sad story of George Washington’s teeth. Beginning with the onset of the Revolutionary War, the countdown takes poor George from just about a mouthful of painful, rotten teeth to a state of complete “tooflessness”–and then to a pair of entirely successful dentures. Cole’s watercolor cartoon illustrations are just right, giving comic vent to George’s despair, hopelessness, fevered attempts at finding his teeth, and final triumphant, toothy strut at a ball. A beautifully illustrated four-page time line shows portraits of the dentally challenged first president and photos of his homegrown, incredibly
uncomfortable-looking dentures, made of gold and hippopotamus ivory. (Contrary to legend, Washington never had wooden ones.) Given that his death was probably hastened by an untreated infection from oldroot fragments in his gums, this is not only a historical treatise, but also a great lesson in dental hygiene. Paired with Laurie Keller’s antic Open Wide: Tooth School Inside (Holt, 1998), it could be used as a real-life example of the havoc wreaked by bad teeth. With 17 sources listed as contributing to the art and dental information on the time line, this accurate and intriguing slice of history should find a place in any elementary library collection.
—Starred, School Library Journal

* Now It Can Be Told: that severe, square-jawed look that the Father of Our Country flashes in his portraits reveals not only strength of character, but also his struggle to hide the fact that he was nearly (entirely, later in life) toothless by keeping a succession of spring-loaded false teeth in place. Drawing information from Washington’s own writings, the authors deliver a double account of his dental tribulations: first in sprightly rhyme—Martha “fed him mush and pickled tripe, / But when guests came to dine, / He sneaked one of his favorite nuts, / Then he had only nine”—followed by a detailed, annotated timeline. Cole’s (Larky Mavis, 2001, etc.) freely drawn, rumpled-looking watercolors document the countdown as well, with scenes of the unhappy statesman at war and at home, surrounded by family, attendants (including dark-skinned ones), and would-be dentists, all in authentic 18th century dress. Contrary to popular belief, Washington’s false teeth were made not of wood, but of real teeth and hippo ivory; a photo of his last set closes this breezy, sympathetic, carefully-researched vignette on a note that will have readers feeling the great man’s pain—and never looking at his painted visage the same way again.

—Starred, Kirkus Reviews

* Chandra and Comora serve up George Washington’s dental problems twice—first as an amusing confection, the facts sauced with fanciful enhancements; then as ungarnished, documented chronology, guaranteed to evoke admiration and empathy for a man who managed to function despite lifelong torment. The bulk of the book is given to a rhymed account of the Revolution and Washington’s presidency with George’s perpetual losing battle for his teeth as the focal point (“Charging on the field, George thought, / ‘There’s something in my mouth.’ / He spat into his handkerchief, / Another tooth came out!”; “Snow fell on George at Valley Forge, / His blue coat hung in tatters. / By then he’d only seven teeth that couldn’t even chatter!”; “Poor George had two teeth in his mouth / The day the votes came in. / The people had a President, / But one afraid to grin”). Brock Cole spins marvelous illustrations with looping calligraphic line, caricaturing George, his troops, his concerned wife, and his faitfully dertermined dentist with affrction and spirt. He renders the story’s conclusion, after George finally gets a satisfactory set of false teeth, as a dance of unrivaled merriment. Though the same in outline, the summary in the concluding timeline, which is derived “from his own letters, diaries, and accounts: plus a list of other scholarly sources, is one of dreary, courageous struggle; in the end, chronic infection from
root fragments probably contributed to Washington’s death. The contrast with the lighthearted rhyme is sobering; it might well provoke useful discussion of viewing the same events from different perspectives; this splendid book is a grand example of author Patricia MacLachlan’s adage, “Facts and fictions are different truths.”
—Starred, The Horn Book

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