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Nonfiction Award Finalist: The President Has Been Shot by James Swanson

2014 January 24
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ThePresidentHasBeenShotJames Swanson, author of the highly acclaimed Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, has done it again with this gripping account of another assassination that also altered the trajectory of history and changed America forever.

Swanson presents the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to young readers in this 2014 Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults finalist a way that is accessible but never condescending. The first part of the book is called “Introduction to John F. Kennedy,” and that is exactly what it provides—a brief outline of Kennedy’s life, the circumstances of his election, and his major accomplishments in office. This section portrays Kennedy in a mostly positive light, perhaps glossing over some of his personal flaws, but in this particular book, I think that decision works. It is not a biography, and readers do not necessarily need to know all the lurid details of Kennedy’s personal life to understand the kind of leader he was and what he represented to the American people. The other thing the book does exceptionally well in those initial chapters is to build a historical context for the events. Swanson condenses the complex climate of world affairs in the early sixties into a few succinct pages, helping readers understand the times without bogging down the narrative in a glut of unnecessary information.

What follows is a painstakingly researched and richly detailed account of the assassination and its aftermath. We are introduced to Lee Harvey Oswald, a lifelong loser with delusions of grandeur who decides—on a whim, and probably for no better reason than frustration with his own insignificance—to kill the President of the United States. We see the series of extraordinary coincidences in the days leading up to November 22, 1963 that made the unthinkable possible.  We experience, minute by minute, the assassination itself and the events that followed—the search for the killer, the long journey back to Washington, and the first lady’s preparations for the funeral of the century as a family and a nation grieved. One of my favorite aspects of the book was its portrayal of Jackie Kennedy and the grace and strength she displayed in the face of tragedy.  The book ends as it began, returning the focus from Kennedy’s death to his life.

To say that The President Has Been Shot reads like a novel does not really do it justice. I have never been one of those people who is particularly fascinated with the Kennedy assassination, but this book completely sucked me in. I feverishly flipped the pages like I was reading a fast-paced crime thriller. I shed tears a couple of times, over events that took place twenty years before I was born. This book holds its own with anything for any age group I have read on the subject. No matter how much you think you know about the Kennedy assassination, you will learn something. I drove my husband crazy when I was reading it because kept interrupting whatever he was doing to say, “Hey, did you know…?”

The visual layout of the book also enhances its appeal. The ample photographs bring history to life, including still frames from the Zapruder film that break down the assassination second by second. Original diagrams, some of them also based on the Zapruder film, help readers to visualize Dealy plaza. Over fifty pages of back matter support the text.

This book should find an audience with readers of all ages, whether they are researching the Kennedy assassination or just looking for a good read.

–Wendy Daughdrill, currently reading One Year in Coal Harbor by Polly Horvath

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