Frienimies: Children’s Books Telling the Complex Story of Jefferson’s and Adams’s Friendship
Worst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson and the True Story of an American Feud by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain and illustrations by Larry Day. Reading level: ages 7 and up.
Those Rebels, John and Tom by Barbara Kerlley and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. Reading level: ages 6 and up.
One day on a tour at Monticello, a middle school student described Thomas Jefferson and John Adams as frienimies – friends who are enemies simultaneously. While their relationship was more complex and evolving than this pop term captures, the middle school student immediately made a connection between a complicated relationship two hundred years ago and ones people navigate today.
This month in for our children’s book club we enjoyed two versions of the complicated Jefferson-Adams relationship and are happy to recommend both for families looking for a way to connect their children with the history of the Early Republic.
Those Rebels John and Tom highlights Jefferson’s and Adams’s contrasting personalities. Barbara Kerley cleverly begins: “The true story of how one gentleman – short and stout –and another – tall and lean – formed a surprising alliance, committed treason, and helped launch new nation.” She then goes on to evoke differences in personalities and upbringings, culminating in their “surprising” alliance during the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Kerley is a creative story teller and the illustrations by Ediwin Fotheringham are imaginative and fun. We also applaud Kerley and Fotheringham for including historical quotations from the period and then including their sources for grown-up readers.
In Worst of Friends, Suzanne Tripp Jurmain tells the broader story of Jefferson's and Adams’s relationship, focusing on their collaboration in 1770s and 80s, their heated political disagreements during the following several decades, and ultimately their reconciliation during retirement. While the text might be dense for younger readers or ones who aren’t already interested in history, the illustrations are creative and, at times, very funny. Plus Jurmain taps into something all of us understand: having strong disagreements with those people we like the most.
More so than some of the biographies we have read about the Founding generation, these two books tell good stories with imaginative illustrations. We think families could enjoy either one of these for several years and help spark or continue to foster children’s interest in history.