Walking her dog along the Tidal Basin one day, Sue Pyatt had a flashback of sorts. She found herself thinking of another walk along the Tidal Basin, a walk taken by an 8-year-old girl with her own dog.
Pyatt, the owner of Kinder Haus Toys and Imagination Station bookstore, grew up in Arlington and Alexandria, and has always loved walks around the Mall. But the walk she thought of that day wasn’t one she had taken as a girl.
Instead, it was a kernel of an idea, the seed for what has become “Call Me Madame President,” a book written by Pyatt and illustrated by Yorktown art teacher Keith Gaston. It details, in rhyme, the dreams of Amanda, an 8-year-old girl who fantasizes about her life as the first female (not to mention juvenile) president. With scenes set around Washington, it shows a young girl in settings familiar from press conferences, photo ops and daily commutes.
Along the way she brings her dog Coolidge, a little puff of fur in some pictures. She also manages to ignore the obstacle that is her brother Freddy, who keeps telling Amanda that 8-year-olds cannot be president.
It also shows a young girl in a position of power, which is a message long past due, said Pyatt. “It’s a cliché to say to little boys that they can grow up to be president. I think the time is now to encourage little girls to believe in their own leadership abilities.”
Her illustrator agrees. Gaston has a 19-year-old daughter, and wishes he had “Madame President” when she was growing up. “It would have been a great inspiration to my daughter at that age,” he said. “She was an avid reader.”
It’s an idea that may be unprecedented in children’s literature, said Lois Groth, professor of elementary literacy education at George Mason University. “It’s the only one I know off the top of my head,” she said.
<b>AMANDA’S STORY</b> is the result of five years of work by Pyatt. She started in 1998, after her Tidal Basin walk left her thinking about the little girl who wants to be president. “Washington is a natural backdrop for a children’s book, and I wanted a feisty little girl with big ideas,” she said. “That evolved into her wanting to be president.”
Inspiration came from Ludwig Bemelmans’ series of “Madeline” books, as well. “She’s a very strong, self-confident little girl,” said Pyatt. “Madeline is shown against the backdrop of famous sites in Paris. I wanted mine to take place against the backdrop of famous sites in Washington.”
Scenes in the book show Amanda speaking outside the White House and at the Ellipse, in the House of Representatives and in front of the Smithsonian Castle.
For Gaston, setting the book in the Washington area made drawing that much easier. “The environment really helped put this book together,” he said. “I’ve been to these places as a tourist. But it was good to put myself in Amanda’s shoes, to think about where she was: walking along the Tidal Basin with her dog, Coolidge. It was very innocent.”
There are hints in the book that Amanda is a child of the Washington suburbs, too – intentional hints, said Pyatt. “I was trying to keep it a little ambiguous,” she said. “I was hoping kids all over would identify with her. But she lives in the suburbs of Washington.”
<b>GETTING THE STORY</b> into shape took time, and a lot of tinkering. “One night, I asked my husband: ‘Should it be this way? Should it be that way?’” Pyatt said. “He said, ‘It’s such a good idea, it doesn’t matter.’”
The Pyatts went out on an exploratory trip next, with Sue Pyatt taking pictures of monuments she wanted to include in the book, part of a package she presented to Gaston to show how she wanted to tell the story.
“One picture evolved while we were out,” said Pyatt. “As we were going down Constitution, I remembered how much I love that garden in front of the National Institute of Sciences, and how much I’ve always loved that Einstein.”
She snapped a quick photo of the Albert Einstein statue, and in the book Amanda peers over the physicist’s shoulder, holding her dog Coolidge.
Amanda herself evolved in the process of designing the book. Pyatt had a rough sketch for Gaston. “I showed him a picture of a little girl with curly hair, who wore glasses,” she said. “He seemed to be able to just create what I wanted.”
“We collaborated like two peas in a pod,” said Gaston.
Pyatt found Gaston when he came to her shop, offering to put a mural on the wall. Gaston led his class from Yorktown High School in painting the mural at Kinder Haus, and so he came to mind when Pyatt needed an illustrator for her book.
“This project was a new beginning for me,” he said. “I was reborn again doing drawings, cartoons and characters. It went dormant for a while, but it all came back to me as a great idea from Sue.”
He used children’s clothes, walks along the Mall — “Anything,” he said, “that would connect me to this character. I’m a father of three, I’ve taught elementary school students, so I know what they’re looking for.”
<b>WITH 2004 PRESIDENTIAL</B> campaigns already underway, now is the right time for the story of a little girl who wants to be president, said Pyatt. “We actually have an announced female candidate for president” in Carol Moseley Braun, she said. “This could start a lot of conversations.”
Current events may not make much difference to young readers, said GMU professor Groth. “I’m not sure it would matter when in a four-year cycle it was released,” she said. “To read a book to a little girl, where a little girl imagines [becoming] president — it could get a little girl thinking about that, imagining that.”
For some children, she said, Pyatt’s book “could be their very first experience with the notion of president.” The fact that the book is all about a female president means that those children will look at a real-life female president as not such a big deal. “It exposes more children to the idea of a female president,” said Groth.
<b>GASTON IS DOING</B> his part to expose as many children as possible to that idea. While working on the book, he visited family in Kansas City, Kansas, and spent part of that time with his 10-year-old niece, Whitney.
“She helped me draw a pair of glasses,” said Gaston. “On the last page, Amanda is going to bed. She’s taken off her glasses and put them on the table, and Whitney drew those glasses for me.”
Gaston included those glasses in the final copy of the book, and sent a signed copy to Whitney. “It’s a dedication to her,” he said.