Monday, March 2, 2009

Voices from Our White House: Susan Cooper

NCBLA Board Member answers questions about "The Burning of the White House"

Welcome back to the NCBLA blog's new weekly feature, Voices from Our White House, a series of interviews with some of the talented contributors to the art and literary anthology Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out, conducted by NCBLA high school intern Colleen Damerell.

Our White House was created by the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance. A collaborative effort by over 100 authors and illustrators, the book is the product of a desire to encourage young people to learn and read about American heritage. For more information, please visit and

This week we feature NCBLA Board Member Susan Cooper, author of King of Shadows, The Boggart, and The Dark is Rising series. Ms. Cooper's piece, titled "The Burning of the White House," is written from the perspective of a British soldier present at the burning in 1814. Here's an excerpt:
We marched up that great wide street in two columns, with two men in each column carrying a dark lanthorn. General Ross and Admiral Cockburn rode at our head. The President's House was a handsome broad building with stone walls and splendidly furnished rooms. The people had run away so fast that a banquet table was still heaped with food and drink for forty or more. We were all half-dead from hunger and thirst, and it was like heaven when General Ross cried, "Very well lads—fall to!"
We asked Ms. Cooper a few questions about her piece:

NCBLA: It is interesting that you chose to write from the perspective of a British soldier burning the White House. Why did you choose to tell the story that way?
SC: I thought it would be more interesting to show one of the British soldiers not as a stereotypical bad guy but as a real young man, with opinions of his own – right or wrong - about the reasons for the job he was doing. No doubt this is related to the fact that I grew up in Britain, though I’ve lived in the United States since 1963.

NCBLA: Who is your favorite president and why?
SC: I don’t know enough about all the presidents to have a favorite, but I have a very soft spot for Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was a brave man, a crafty politician and an idealistic reformer, and without his secret help the land of my birth would probably have been invaded by the Nazis in 1940.

NCBLA: The letter does not reflect well upon President James Madison. Who is your least favorite president and why?
SC: By the argument above, I suppose I can’t have a least favorite either, but since you ask, George W. Bush would be high (or should it be low?) on the list, particularly for the false justification of the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq.

NCBLA: If you could have lived during any period of American history, which would you choose? I'm guessing you wouldn't care for the War of 1812.
SC: I’ve always been fascinated by the thought of the Americas that existed before the Europeans came greedily colonizing both continents and changed them forever. I think I’d choose to have been born sometime around 1400 as a member of Dine, ”The People”, known to us now as the Navajo Nation. If they’d have me.

NCBLA: If you could have a tea party with a few past presidents, whom would you choose and why? What questions would you ask?
SC: I’d sit Thomas Jefferson next to Abraham Lincoln and ask them to discuss slave ownership. Herbert Hoover would sit next to Bill Clinton to discuss economic policy, and I’d put Warren Harding next to Richard Nixon to share views on ethics. Then I’d ask Barack Obama to sit at the head of the table, because it would take his calm wisdom to keep them all from thumping each other.

Ms. Cooper also wrote an essay about her personal experiences visiting the White House entitled "Memory of the White House," which can be found here exclusively on

For more information about Susan Cooper, please read her NCBLA bio and visit her website.

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