“America is made of ordinary people capable of extraordinary things.” ~ Certified Bidenism 🙂
The very first picture book biography of 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden begins with his earnest appeal:
“Give me the ball!”
We soon see how this memorable refrain aptly characterizes his competitiveness and willingness to take the lead and carry the burden — whether playing a childhood game of pick-up football or diligently working on behalf of his constituents.
JOEY: The Story of Joe Biden, by Jill Biden (with Kathleen Krull) and Amy June Bates (Paula Wiseman Books, 2020), essentially highlights Vice President Biden’s early years, showing young readers how his middle class upbringing, strong family values, daredevil spirit, fierce determination, and inborn compassion shaped his life as a leader and public servant.
Reading this book is like sitting down with a good friend who’s sharing favorite family stories about someone she knows only too well. Kids have likely seen Joe Biden on TV; they know he’s running for President, and now, thanks to Jill, they have a chance to view this larger-than-life public figure in a more personal, relatable way.
We first meet Joey as an active 8-year-old, on the move and not the least bit intimidated by a group of older boys playing football. It didn’t matter that he was smaller than all of them, he taunted them anyway. When they couldn’t catch him, “they welcomed him into their game.”
Joey had such great adventures with his best buddies, Charlie, Larry, and Tommy. Typical boys, everything was a competition. They went to the movies and reenacted their favorite scenes, romped through the neighborhood with Joey’s dogs, and visited the monkey at the candy store. But Joey was also a peacemaker who looked out for others, a natural leader who drew people together by focusing on what they had in common.
Did you know Joey could never refuse a dare? Risk taker extraordinaire, he once “climbed atop a mountain of still-burning coal,” “raced along the pipes high above a river,” and even “grabbed a heavy rope and swung over a construction site, imitating Tarzan — without a net.”
Best of all, he was the only one who could climb all the way to the top of a slippery flagpole in the football field!
The oldest of four kids, Joey grew up in a close, loving family, with parents who encouraged him to be confident, brave, and resilient. Things did not always go smoothly, with his dad having to work several jobs and their eventually having to move from Scranton to Delaware. But they always had each other, and by his father’s example, Joey learned early on that when you stumble or get knocked down, you must always “Get Up!”
As firstborn, “Joey took the lead with his siblings.” He and his sister Valerie were especially close; he biked her to the playground and taught her all the best sports moves. The Biden kids also had a deal with their parents: they would resolve differences and settle arguments among themselves. A firm family rule: “if you said, ‘I give you my word as a Biden,’ it meant you were telling the absolute truth.”
For Joey, home was a safe haven of learning, a place to sit around the kitchen table with the grown-ups for stimulating discussions about sports, politics, or the latest news. School, however, was a different story.
Joey was teased and bullied because of his stutter. He fought back to cover up his hurt, but he also took steps to do something about his speech. He “planned ahead” in class when they were called on to read aloud, and made sure he was up on the latest Yankees news so he could talk to neighbors on his paper route. He even practiced speaking in front of a mirror with pebbles in his mouth to strengthen his muscles.
Luckily at the Catholic schools he attended, the nuns were very encouraging and supportive. “They stood up for him when he was bullied” and tried to help him with his stutter. “One nun suggested putting a singsong rhythm to his words.” So Joey memorized long passages of Irish poems and recited them aloud, practicing for hours.
We see more of Joe’s industry and initiative when he fulfilled his dream of attending high school at Archmere Academy in Claymont. Since his family couldn’t afford the tuition, he applied for a work-study program, spending summers washing the two hundred windows of the school building, as well as painting iron fences and pulling weeds in the formal gardens. When he wanted something, he found a way to get it.
Joe excelled in high school sports, leading his football team to an undefeated season in his senior year. He was a leader off the field as well, serving as class president during his junior and senior years, and he did not hesitate to act in the face of injustice. When his African American teammate wasn’t allowed to order food at a local diner with the rest of the athletes, he led the team to leave in protest.
By the time he graduated, Joe had overcome his stuttering and actually enjoyed public speaking. “He wanted to communicate, and he looked for opportunities to do more. ‘Give me the ball!'”
Inspired by prominent figures in the civil rights movement, Joe dreamed of a life in public service. He’d learned more about segregation when he worked one summer as the only white lifeguard at a pool in an all-black neighborhood. He wanted to be among those who could make people’s lives better. After studying about elected officials in Congress “who made laws and served the people,” he decided college would be his next step. As the first Biden to pursue higher education, he majored in political science and history at the University of Delaware, then earned his law degree from Syracuse University.
He worked as a public defender before entering politics in 1969. Just three years later, at the age of 29, he ran for the U.S. Senate from Delaware, this time asking voters to give him the ball — and they did, making him the fifth youngest Senator in history (and he was re-elected six more times!). After three decades in the Senate, he was chosen to be Barack Obama’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election.
Joe served eight years as Vice President, spreading the word about WH policies all over America and in fifty countries around the world. President Obama called him “the best vice president America’s ever had.”
In 2019, Joe Biden announced his candidacy for President, calling the 2020 election, “a battle for the soul of America.”
Young readers will enjoy reading about Joey’s interesting childhood adventures, and will be impressed and inspired by his moxie and can-do spirit. Jill’s anecdotes are fascinating, charming, touching and telling, illustrating how Joey was a people person from the beginning, whose compassion and understanding drew others into his orbit. He could be tenacious and tough as well as thoughtful and caring.
Too many kids will be able to relate to the pain of being bullied and/or having a personal challenge like stuttering. They will be heartened to learn that it made Joey even stronger and more empathetic to suffering of all kinds, and that he defended others who were teased or taunted.
An eternal optimist, Joe was and is a hard worker, always treating others with dignity and respect. He’s never forgotten his mother’s words, which fostered humility and tolerance: “Remember, Joey, you’re a Biden. Nobody is better than you. You’re not better than anyone else, but nobody is any better than you.”
Amy June Bates’s watercolor, gouache and pencil illustrations, with their soft edges and sepia-toned blues and browns, evoke a simpler time when boys wore striped t-shirts and Keds, rode Schwinn bikes, watched console TVs, and loved to play fort. Bates’s figurative art is engaging and appealing, pulling you right into the middle of the action with spot-on postures and facial expressions (love those nuns playing baseball). 🙂
We can feel Joey’s energy and playfulness as he whizzes by on his bike, swings from that rope or races down the field, football in hand, as well as his clenched-fist anger at the bullies. I like seeing Joey’s many interactions, whether in the middle of a lifeguard huddle, hashing out an argument with his siblings, or peacefully eating ice cream with them in front of the TV.
Kids will also love following Joey’s dogs (Snoopy the beagle, King the German shepherd) from spread to spread. Especially adorable: Snoopy under the kitchen table licking his chops, hoping for that last slice of bacon on the plate. 🙂
Joey: The Story of Joe Biden helps answer the question: what are the makings of a good President, or more specifically, why would Joe Biden be a good President? Jill’s words tell it true: he’s honest, fair, hard-working, courageous, selfless, decent, humble, good-hearted, compassionate, and empathetic. He’s always believed that “the absolute most important thing is your family.” He’s a husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, human being first, politician second.
I’ve always felt you can tell a lot about people by looking at their childhoods, a time when essential selves and personalities evolve and crystallize, when values are acquired and tested, when many ‘coming-of-age’ experiences begin to define who they will become.
Maybe he was just a regular guy, not rich, not privileged, but he dreamed big and saw himself as a leader — “the best Biden I can be.”
Time once again to give Joey the ball.
🍦VOTE FOR ICE CREAM 🍨
Here’s one of our favorite parts in the book (no surprise):
Often after dinner, Joey biked down to the drugstore to get everyone a half gallon of vanilla ice cream to eat while watching Lassie and other favorite shows on TV.
I love how everyone is seated on a blue rug in front of the TV holding spoons. Valerie has the entire carton of ice cream right in front of her, and Snoopy is mesmerized by seeing Lassie on the screen.
Wasn’t that nice of Joey to get ice cream for them all the time? Truth be told — and it’s legendary at this point — Joe Biden LOVES LOVES LOVES ice cream. It might just be his favorite food group aside from angel hair pomodoro.
Apparently he has a sweet tooth in general — you wouldn’t know it by looking at him (he’s always been so slim and trim). He’s especially fond of dairy desserts: frozen custard, milkshakes, cheesecake, rice pudding, custard pie, coconut cream pie — but he wouldn’t turn down an almond croissant, a slice of peach pie, or homemade cookies. 🙂
So, what’s his favorite ice cream flavor? CHOCOLATE CHIP. Oh yes, he’s my kind of guy. That makes us practically related, so I have no qualms about calling him ‘Joey.’
I think Joey would be an easy dinner guest. No alcohol for him (he prefers soda). Just serve up some Italian food (like Jill’s Chicken Parmesan or the aforementioned pasta pomodoro), maybe a green salad, and then go heavy on the desserts. Nom nom.
In solidarity with our favorite Scranton son, we all scarfed down some chocolate chip ice cream (since Joe’s go-to brand of choice, Jeni’s Splendid, isn’t available in our area, we gorged ourselves on Häagen-Dazs). SO good. We suggest you do the same; it’ll bring Joey and Kamala good luck in the election!
JOEY: The Story of Joe Biden
written by Jill Biden (with Kathleen Krull)
illustrated by Amy June Bates
published by Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster, June 2020
Picture Book Biography for ages 4+, 48 pp.
*Back Matter includes family photos, quotation sources, a time line, bibliography, and a list of “Bidenisms”
♥️ Enjoy this short video of Dr. Jill Biden reading an excerpt from the book:
🏈 SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY 🏀
Eminent children’s biographer Kathleen Krull, who worked with Dr. Biden on JOEY, is generously offering a copy for one lucky Alphabet Soup reader. For a chance to win, please leave a comment at this post no later than midnight (EDT), October 27, 2020. You may also enter by sending an email with JOEY in the subject line to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Giveaway open to U.S. residents only, please. Good Luck!
*Interior spreads from JOEY: The Story of Joe Biden, text copyright © 2020 Jill Biden, illustrations © 2020 Amy June Bates, published by Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.
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*** Copyright © 2020 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.