Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy host a show and podcast called Civics 101 on New Hampshire Public Radio. This experience makes them uniquely qualified to write A User’s Guide to Democracy: How America Works. It’s a 21st century primer on everything about U.S. government, with hilarious illustrations by Tom Toro. Plus, it’s actually engaging, unlike my memories of high school civics class.

I think I’m pretty hip to most things about how America’s government works. But the details elude me sometimes. Now I have a resource for those times. Capodice and McCarthy organize the structural parts with the finer details and tell a ton of historical stories in the meantime. 

First, they start with the three branches of the government—executive, judicial, legislative. Then explain the roles that federal government plays, and how it’s different than the states. The reality is that none of this information has stayed static for 225+ years, and they explain that too. Just when you think you’re too deep in the difference between the various phases of federalism, there’s a funny analogy about cake. Really.

Given its release right before our 2020 elections, the authors dig deep into how voting works. Both in the past and in current times. They explain the Electoral College, the history of political parties and the voting process itself. 

Then they roll into the major documents—Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Amendments. If this sounds like where you take a nap, you’re wrong. There’s plenty of stories about the people involved, with debates and disagreements. It’s honestly fascinating. (And there’s more fun drawings!)

My conclusions

As much as I enjoyed the first four sections of the book, the best two are at the end. So, even if you just read a chapter a day, be sure to stick it out. (You could skip ahead … but you’d miss good stuff.) Capodice and McCarthy end the book with a roundup of significant Supreme Court decisions, which also teach a bit about the Justices. They start with those that changed our country’s landscape for the better. Then they switch to those decisions we now agree weren’t so great. The summaries they write skip all the legalese and make it easy to understand the cases.

And all of this knowledge is nothing if you don’t use some of it to get active in politics yourself. So User’s Guide also includes a short 24 page guide to contacting your elected officials, protesting, and even running for office. All with their trademark lighthearted earnestness. 

Don’t forget to read the appendix with fun facts about every President. And be sure to take the pop quiz! I also recommend their podcast. I took a few minutes to listen to a recent episode and learned about birthright citizenship, which is important.

It’s rare to find a book on the heavy topic of politics that makes me laugh with it. Not laughing at the people involved but laughing at some of the ridiculous decisions we as a country have made. And yet, we’re still here. So far. If you want to have government-related facts at your fingertips, this is for you. I suspect it would make a great book for home schooling too. You might catch this reviewer buying a copy for the kids in her life!


Many thanks to Celadon Books, Nick Capodice, Hannah McCarthy, and Tom Toro for the opportunity to read an advanced readers’ copy in exchange for this honest review. Publish date is Tuesday, September 8, 2020.