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Electorate Lit



Published October 6, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

As Election Day approaches, you can't miss the endless appeals aimed at Americans between 18 and 24 -- from "Vote or Die" placards at the MTV Video Music Awards to celebrities pressing the issue on the red carpet. But how do you plant the seeds of civic duty in kids too young to care whether P. Diddy goes to the ballot box?

In Vermont, state officials have decided that a book featuring two garrulous dogs is a good way to bring voter education to our youngest citizens. It all started when Secretary of State Deb Markowitz called up State Librarian Sybil McShane to talk about a picture book called Vote!, published in 2003 by Dummerston author and illustrator Eileen Christelow. Two weeks ago, Markowitz and McShane joined forces to mail a copy of Vote! to 240 public elementary schools and 192 public libraries in the state, together with a teacher's guide and a letter reminding librarians that "our youngest citizens voted at an anemic 19% in the last election... Studies also show that as children become more interested in voting," the letter continues, "parents of those childrenbecome more likely to register and vote. There is a 'trickle-up' effect."

Getting kids interested in voting means first getting them interested, period -- no simple task in the age of Playstation and Pokemon. Vote! tells the story of a mayoral race in an imaginary city, complete with a disputed result and a recount. But while the candidates debate the issues -- Bill Brown is white and male, Chris Smith is an African-American female -- the book's real protagonists are Smith's young daughter and the family's two dogs, Sparky and Elmer. The latter knows more about the history of voting rights than your average college student, let alone your average garbage sniffer. While Elmer educates the reader, the excitable Sparky provides comic relief -- disrupting a debate to defend his mistress; agitating for canine suffrage. Meanwhile, a couple of representative swing voters bumble toward an informed decision between the candidates.

Christelow, who has produced more than 20 books for young readers since the early '80s, can remember her own first political participation. A child whose mother was passionate about Adlai Stevenson, she wore an "All the Way With Adlai" pin to school to counter her classmates' "I Like Ike" statements. Christelow decided to write Vote! after the 2000 election. But, because she wanted the book to be "totally nonpartisan," she chose to depict a mayoral election, which was "easier to make anonymous," she says. She researched voting history at Library of Congress websites and used recount numbers from a Springfield, Massachusetts, election to make her fictional scenario more realistic.

One of the hardest parts of nonpartisan voter education is teaching people how to choose without telling them whom to choose. Talking with young people, Christelow says, "I constantly hear the refrain that there's no difference between the candidates, that politicians are all bad. That's nonsense. If they think that, it's because they're not really reading."

Vote! makes an election's substantive issues less daunting by boiling them down to a single one: Chris Smith wants to spend more money on schools, while Bill Brown wants to build a stadium. As the swing voters argue the point, they also try to decipher the real message behind the candidates' ads. "Kids are very interested in the question: Are these people on TV telling the truth?" says Christe-low, who provides a link on her website to the nonpartisan watchdog site factcheck.org.

The issue of schools directly affects the book's target audience. "I've been to schools that are in bad shape," Christelow says, "where the bond issues have been voted down over and over." But while the book may be subtly biased toward Chris Smith and her dollars-for-education platform, some young readers still succumb to the appeal of Bill Brown. "They were mostly little boys who thought it would be good to have a stadium, or kids who didn't like school," says Christelow, who follows her readings of the book with mock elections for mayor -- and top dog.

Most Vermont librarians haven't gotten around to using Vote! yet. But Nancy Custer Carroll of New Haven's Beeman Elementary plans to use the book this month in conjunction with a mock election. And Vote! got good reviews from a group of fourth- and fifth-graders at Alburg Community Educational Center, says librarian Angelica Harris. "They loved having the dogs be the instructors," she explains -- though "one person missed the point and was more interested in seeing dogs get the right to vote" than in the outcome of the contest.

Kids follow their parents beyond the ballot box to the ends of the Earth in a new collection of essays edited by Ferrisburgh writer Wendy Knight. Far From Home: Father-Daughter Travel Adventures was published last June by Seal Press. In one contribution, travel writer Mark Jenkins tells of taking his daughter across Europe, through Costa Rica and Mexico on back roads, into snow caves and up mountains -- all before she turned 5. She frustrates him by trading her ice ax for a Barbie doll. Other essays trace the generation gap from the perspective of adult daughters like Camille Cusumano, who found common ground with her stern patriarch of a father when the two journeyed together to their Sicilian homeland.

Far From Home bookends Knight's 2003 collection Making Connections: Mother-Daughter Travel Adventures, which has just been awarded a Lowell Thomas Gold Prize for Travel Book. Sponsored by the Society of American Travel Writers, the award is decided by faculty of the University of Missouri's journalism school, who combed through 1330 entries in 27 categories. Knight, a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and Outside magazine, describes both books as "explorations of different aspects of the child-parent relationship as it pertains to the outdoors. It's about the emotional journey more than the physical one."

While Making Connections deals with the "primal bond" between mothers and daughters, Knight says, Far From Home delves into the "disconnect" that exists between fathers and daughters "of gender and generational differences." For many of the dads and daughters depicted in the book, pitching camp and sitting by the fire is a bonding ritual.

Let's hope the biannual trip to the polls can become one, too.

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