Module 11 — Informational Book

George Washington’s Teeth by Deborah Chandra

Module 11 — Informational Book

Bibliography

Chandra, D.  (2003).  George Washington’s Teeth.  New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Summary

Many people are aware that our nation’s first president had dental problems (although he never actually had wooden teeth).  Deborah Chandra shows that Washington was afflicted throughout his adult life with rotten teeth, chronic abscesses, and pain-inducing dentures. The witty rhyming verse and whimsical illustrations keep the tone light while showing that Washington rather stoically endured terrible suffering while becoming our country’s most famous general and first president.

My Impressions

This is a fascinating look at the extreme pain and apparent embarrassment suffered by the revered Father or our Country as he battled constant dental problems that caused not only tremendous mouth pain and difficulties with eating but also infections that severely impacted his overall health and must have made life quite miserable for large periods of his adult life.  This book’s informative timeline provides documentation from primary sources and, along with the bibliography, serves as a springboard for possible research or for a more personal connection to events of history in general and the American Revolution in particular.  George Washington’s Teeth, with its entertaining poetry and pictures and its informative timeline, is a good mix of fascinating history and playful entertainment that could encourage students to study events and people of the past in more creative and personal ways.

Reviews

[Review of George Washington’s Teeth]. (2002, Dec. 2). Publishers Weekly, 249, 251.

/* Starred Review */ 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 Delaware , 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 dentures (these are carved from hippopotamus ivory, and even shown, in a photograph in the afterword). 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 (“George stood up to have a look—/ He fell back on his fanny./ ‘It doesn’t look like me!’ he roared./ ‘It looks like Martha’s granny!’ “). 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.

Welton, A. (2003, Jan. 1). [Review of the book George Washington’s teeth]. School Library Journal, 49, 120.

K-Gr 5 –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 old root 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.

Using in the Library

Although we know George Washington as an almost colossal figure central in our nation’s founding, he was a flesh and bones person who suffered great pain and dealt with persistent problems that often caused him embarrassment along with continual discomfort.   Have students choose a prominent figure from history or from today’s popular or political culture.  What are some personal challenges or setbacks faced by this person?  In dealing with these problems, what is revealed about this person’s character or defining qualities?  Have students write potential or actual Wikipedia contributions about one or two personal conflicts in the life of their chosen people, using print or Web resources other than Wikipedia for biographical information.

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About Boyd Waltman

Boyd Waltman is a film editor in Houston, Texas.
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