Review: The Great Little Madison

Title: The Great Little Madison

Author: Jean Fritz

Publisher: The Putnam & Grosset Group

Part of the “Unforgettable Americans” Series



My non-fiction instructor at Simmons College, Susan Bloom said that, “Nobody writes biographies for children without standing on the shoulders of Jean Fritz”. I suppose I would have to agree with this in a historical sense.  Jean Fritz changed the way that we as readers thought of biographies, and particularly biographies for young readers. Her biography of President James Madison entitled, “The Great Little Madison” published in 1989 is a great example of why Bloom makes that claim.
Rather than the drab, textbook style writing that is seen in much of non-fiction dated before the 1970’s, Fritz writes in a casual, conversational manner. Too conversational for my liking, in fact. Her writing can come off as cheeky or even cute throughout her depiction of President James Madison. Though this book is a work of non-fiction, which follows Madison’s life chronologically from young adulthood to death, Fritz seems to take some liberties with the thoughts and feelings of Madison, which, according to her limited bibliography, contain no source material.  For instance, Fritz writes of Madison’s voyage with Marquis de Lafayette,

“Together they went up the Hudson on a barge, and although James was seasick when they ran into two hurricanes, one right after another, he experienced no return of his ‘falling sickness.’ In fact, he had never had so much fun in his life.”

Really? Sailing on a barge through two hurricanes and becoming seasick was the most fun that President James Madison ever had in his life?  I suppose you know that because he rose from the dead and told you.

Despite the liberties taken by Fritz in this moment and throughout the book, she does accomplish something that had never been done before in the world of non-fiction. She humanized a great president, painting a portrait of him that is not only the strong willed politician clad in nothing but black, but the meek and mild mannered young student, who would have never aspired to become president if it weren’t for a series of  seemingly unrelated events.

This entertaining albeit flashy telling of the life of James Madison reads much like a work of fiction. I would recommend this book to the young reader aged ten and up who enjoys the catty and conversationally narrative writing style of Jean Fritz, but can take what is written with a grain of salt.
Posted By: Janine Reads


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