The cover of Action Presidents: George Washington sums up the book itself. It proudly declares itself a story with “Real history! Fake jokes!” and features an image of the Father of Our Nation in a triumphant—possibly imminently violent—pose.

The plot focuses on Washington’s life (and some nonsense about narrator/poultry “Noah the Historkey”), including his family relationships and military career. The facts laid out are fairly dry, but the accompanying images and dialog add a lot of humor to Washington’s life and add a sense of reality to the mythic president. Legends don’t get dysentery or have nagging moms, and they definitely don’t lose battle after battle or own slaves.

The story’s humor makes its hero accessible, interesting, and genuine. This book is commendable for not holding its subject in awe. It illuminates problematic aspects of the multi-classed tobacco farmer/soldier’s life, and talks frankly about how Washington’s exposure to free black soldiers helped the man see slavery as wrong—even as he preferred not to trouble his fellow Virginians with his moral insights and lacked the money to free his own slaves until after his death. As a biography, this text is meant to be the beginning of a young person’s exploration of Washington. There are many intriguing tidbits that are not fully explored, like Washington’s reluctance to govern, his near superhuman strength, and his problematic friendship with his valet-and-slave, William Lee. To this end, the back-matter provides a short bibliography for young readers, along with a glossary of colonial terms and a list of the many landmarks across the U.S. named after the great president.

Some readers will likely recognize Ryan Dunlavey’s kinetic black-and-white cartooning style and Fred van Lente’s factoid-based storytelling from their earlier series, Action Philosophers. Both the art and writing in this volume are more polished than in their (enjoyable) previous efforts. Their work also benefits from telling a longer story, and if the narrative seems shallow in places, that is largely because it’s a short book dedicated to a long life.

History comics aimed at a young audience are relatively thick on the ground right now, but as the first of a new series—a second volume focused on Lincoln was released in February, and a Theodore Roosevelt bio is scheduled for release in July—Action Presidents stands apart from its peers. This is a smart, fast read that is engaging throughout. It starts out by reeling its readers in with a solid sense of humor, but the story’s gravity will keep tugging its readers straight through to the end. This book is a must for elementary and middle school library collections, and is highly recommended for public library children’s collections as well. Teachers looking for books to engage readers at all levels, reluctant and otherwise, may also want to have some copies on hand. Even if they never loan them out, the teachers themselves will enjoy looking at the first U.S. president in a funny new light.

Action Presidents, vol.1: George Washington!
by Fred Van Lente
Art by Ryan Dunlavey
ISBN: 9780062394057
Harper, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

  • Matt

    Past Reviewer

    Matthew Z. Wood has over a decade’s experience in public and academic libraries, and has worked everything from IT to Reference Desks, from the Reserve Room to Acquisitions. He received his Master’s in Library Science from the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill in 2011. He has worked at the North Carolina State University’s D.H. Hill Library, and the Durham County Library in Durham, NC and is currently a Writing Trainer for Comic Book Resources and Valnet. Working with his partners, David Milloway and Stephanie Freese, Mr. Wood co-created the webcomics “The Dada Detective” and “Chocolypse Now!” Their collection “The Dada Alphabet” was shortlisted for the Lulu Blooker Prize; the team received a Nerdlinger Award in 2008. Though a child of the Carolinas, Mister Wood resides in Spokane, Washington with his wife and daughter; they have dinner with his in-laws every Sunday. A church-goer but not an evangelist, a practicing martial artist for more than 30 years (Southern Chinese kung fu and T'ai Chi Chuan) but not a fighter, he has loved comics his entire life. Most recently, he has contributed articles to Dr. Sheena Howard’s Encyclopedia of Black Comics and in August of 2018 his first book-- Comic Book Collections and Programming, A Practical Guide for Librarians-- was published by Rowman and Littlefield. He writes under the name The Stupid Philosopher at

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