Monday, February 18, 2008

Nonfiction Monday: George Washington's Teeth

I hadn’t planned to write a book review for Nonfiction Monday. I was looking for a poem to post for Presidents’ Day in honor of George Washington when I remembered a book I used to share in the library with my elementary students—a book I still read to the students in my children’s literature course. It’s a nonfiction book about the dental problems that our first President faced, the constant pain caused by his rotting teeth, and the dentures that were made for him. It isn’t a typical book about one of the most illustrious figures in American history. It’s a humorous story written in verse that begins at the time of the Revolutionary War and ends after George Washington becomes President and gets a pair of dentures carved from a hippo tusk.

Written by Deborah Chandra & Madeleine Comora
Pictures by Brock Cole
Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2003

George Washington’s Teeth is most certainly a great book to read aloud! It’s rhythmic and rhyming and sure to tickle children’s funny bones. But…the book was well researched. In the back matter, there is a four-page time line (1732-1799) of important events in Washington’s life taken from his own letters, diaries, and accounts. It includes two photographs of his last set of dentures. There is also a list of time line sources.

This is how the book begins:

The Revolutionary War
George hoped would soon be won,
But another battle with his teeth
Had only just begun…

George Washington rushed into town,
The dentist heard his shout.
“Hold still,” he said, then gave a yank—
A rotten tooth popped out!

But that’s not the end of George’s tooth troubles. He heads off to war again with another toothache. He has swollen gums, which he soothes with oil of myrrh. He continues to lose teeth and have teeth pulled. He has to eat soft foods like mush and pickled tripe. When he crosses the Delaware River, there are just nine teeth left in his mouth. At Valley Forge, he has but seven. By the time he returns home after the war is won, he can count the number of teeth in his mouth on one hand: five. So it goes…until Election Day, when…

Poor George had two teeth in his mouth
The day the votes came in.
The people had a President,
But one afraid to grin.

When an artist comes to paint George’s portrait, he has the President put cotton in his mouth to puff out his sunken lips. Later, his dentist brings him a set of dentures. The denture’s springs snap against his tongue, fly out of his mouth—and he loses his last tooth. Poor “toofless” George gets an idea. He rummages through Mount Vernon looking for the teeth he lost. He makes a plaster mold with the teeth he finds to show to the dentist. The dentist then carves Washington a set of dentures from hippo tusk. The rhyming story ends happily with George dancing the night away at a ball.

In the book’s time line, the authors state the following: “George dies at Mount Vernon at the age of sixty-seven. It is believed that a chronic, untreated infection from the old root fragments in his gums contributed to his death.” There are many other facts included in the time line—as well as pictures of some of Washington’s portraits—that children are sure to find interesting.

Brock Coles’ cartoon-like watercolor illustrations enhance the lighthearted tone of the text. Children are sure to enjoy this humorous tale of the dental woes of the Father of Our Country.

Edited to Add:

To see a picture of a set of George Washington’s dentures, click here.
To see two more pictures of George Washington’s teeth, click here and here.

Anastasia Suen has the Nonfiction Monday Round-up for February 18, 2008.


Anonymous said...

I have to agree- This is such a great book- it's done very well!

Elaine Magliaro said...


The book is fun to read aloud--but it also has a lot of information included in the time line. It's certainly a different kind of nonfiction book for children about our first President.