“The President Has Been Shot!” vs. Kennedy’s Last Days

When I discovered that two different accounts of Kennedy’s assassination had arrived at the Butler Center, I immediately grabbed them and started reading. Like so many people, I have a fascination with the Kennedys. I can’t pinpoint why exactly, but I’m guessing it’s a combination of my enchantment with mystery, glamour, politics, unexplainable tragedy, and story. Kennedy’s life—and death—are captivating stories, and two versions of Kennedy’s story are newly published for young adults in 2013: “The President Has Been Shot!”: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James L. Swanson, and Kennedy’s Last Days: The Assassination that Defined a Generation by Bill O’Reilly. Before I compare and contrast, I want to make a note about audience. Scholastic suggests that the Swanson book be for ages 12 and up, noted on the book jacket. O’Reilly’s book cover does not indicate an intended age, but after further research I discovered that Henry Holt and Co. notes on their website that the book “will captivate adults and young readers alike” (http://us.macmillan.com/kennedyslastdays/BillOReilly). Of course, librarians can choose where to shelve this book, on what bibliographies to include this book, and what ages to steer this book to in reader’s advisory conversations. Finding out the publisher’s intended age was important to me though, for one reason: As I was reading, I wondered, Why is there no mention of Kennedy’s affairs? Both of these titles are not picturebooks or nonfiction titles intended for early elementary children. They are written for older kids—tweens and teens. Of course, many might argue that Kennedy’s philandering might not be appropriate for tweens, but then I beg the inevitable question. Why are we okay with telling them about extreme violence? Both books have large pictures of rifles and handguns. Of the assassination, Swanson’s book states, “[The third bullet] cut a neat hole through [the president’s] scalp and perforated his skull. The velocity, the pressure, and the physics of death did the rest. The right rear side of the president’s skull blew out—exploded really—tearing open his scalp, and spewing skull fragments, blood, and brains several feet into the air where it hung for a few seconds, suspended in a pink cloud” (113). Similarly, O’Reilly states, “The next bullet explodes his skull…it slices through the tender gray brain matter before exploding out the front of his head” (207). It is bothersome to me that both authors consciously eliminated sexual content for a young adult audience, but were perfectly fine with descriptive violence. I understand the importance of preserving JFK’s legendary status and historical importance, but this is a book of nonfiction, and kids deserve to know the whole story. The intended elimination reminds me of Ingri & Edgar Parin d’Aulaire’s Caldecott winning book Abraham Lincoln, in which there is no mention of Lincoln’s assassination. Do we think we are protecting young adults by eliminating facts? Do we think they won’t find out? What is it that is so much more terrifying about sex than exploding brains, spewing skull fragments, and revolvers?

president bookSwanson’s book establishes a strong narrative flow immediately. His writing is detailed, jargon-free, and action-packed. He is always able to put his reader right inside the story while using a third-person point of view. Swanson knows how to paint a picture, and emphasizes significant things that are not just arbitrary. I’ve read so much about the Kennedys and I never had read this: When Jackie got off the plane in Dallas, she was given red roses EVEN THOUGH the state flower was the yellow rose. Apparently, “so many of them had been ordered for the various events the Kennedys would attend in Texas that local florists had run out of them” (87-8). Pretty eerie that Jackie would be given red roses in the city that her husband would be assassinated in only minutes later. Never-before seen photographs are released in this book, and Swason’s charts and graphs are descriptive and compelling. Swanson details Oswald’s every move through text and picture, even recreating his view of Elm Street from the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository. Several photographs of the seconds after the violent shots are shown from varied angles, displaying Clint Hill covering the president and Jackie with his own body. Swanson’s biggest accomplishment is his ability to keep the tension high while keeping facts straight; I didn’t want to put the book down.

kennedy bookWhile I’m not normally a fan of O’Reilly’s politics, I went into this book with a distinct conviction to be unbiased. O’Reilly starts his book off with a personal touch, describing where he was and how he felt on November 22, 1963. He outlines his book into four parts—The Making of a Hero, The Making of a Leader, Dallas, Texas—November 1963, and The Making of a Legend. The chapters alternate perspectives, recounting the parallel time frames of the lives of Kennedy and Oswald. It is an interesting approach the illuminates personality traits of both men. Using present tense, O’Reilly attempts to place his reader directly into the narrative, as if it is happening right now. The thing is, Swanson does that with past tense and it makes much more sense. One does not need to write in present tense in order to make a story come alive. In fact, because the book often needs to use past tense for historical background and context, it is strange to jump back and forth between tenses. Yet, O’Reilly writes with respect towards JFK and loyalty to his country. I was bothered by some of the assumptions made, specifically about people feeling certain things. For example, O’Reilly states , “Jackie Kennedy likes to think of herself as a traditional wife, focusing most of her attention on her husband and children” (55-6). First of all, how do we know what Jackie Kennedy felt about her role as a wife? Secondly, I have read the contrary. Rather than focusing on her family and children, Jackie took several trips abroad without her children, and very rarely had to do the things that many “traditional mothers” have to do—change dirty diapers, cook breakfast, do the dishes, clean the laundry. While I’m not doubting Jackie’s loyalty to her family, I do doubt O’Reilly’s statement that she was a traditional wife. In the memoir Mrs. Kennedy and Me, by Clint Hill (Jackie’s personal secret service agent), Hill describes Mrs. Kennedy in a way you’ve never known her before. It’s definitely a book to read if you like all things Kennedy.

It is difficult to be an author that follows up a fabulous year of narrative nonfiction, and let’s face it—2012 rocked. These two authors do a good job with building and maintaining a tense, politically-charged, mysterious story about a piece of contemporary history. When I grew up, history was just history to me. It all seemed the same, and numbers never had much significance for me, because I just had to MEMORIZE them. I probably became fascinated with the Kennedys because my parents constantly told me about that time period—it’s when they grew up. I remember the realization of “Woah. Civil Rights wasn’t long ago. This assassination (and Bobby Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King’s) was one lifetime away from me.” Kids in middle school and high school now don’t have as many parents that remember this time. It’s up to great nonfiction writers to preserve the past and keep the story alive. Swanson’s book available in October; O’Reilly’s in stores now.