Obama Joins the Children’s Book Brigade

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First, a few quick bits of context for Obama’s children’s book, Of Thee I Sing, released last week and now climbing up bestseller lists.

The cover image for Obama's new book, courtesy of Random House.

- According to the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, Obama finished writing the book before he was in office. So let us put a hold on the indignation at his penning stories with a backdrop of 10% unemployment.

- This book is part of a $1.9-million, three-book deal with Random House, though all proceeds from this particular work will be going to a scholarship fund for the children of veterans — donations being standard fare for celebrity-bred kidlet reading. Just a few of the other presidential children’s books include Jimmy Carter’s The Little Baby Snoogle-Fleejer, Laura and Jenna Bush’s Read All About It! and Lynne Cheney’s A Patriotic Primer. (Though there’s still room to dream of those unwritten, like Richard Nixon’s Everybody Snoops or Bill Clinton’s Where the Wild Things Cigar.)

- The book has 31 pages, featuring 13 history-making Americans, all dedicated to the president’s two daughters, for the price of $17.99 (tax not included).

Now to the book itself. The subhead is “A Letter to My Daughters,” and the writing comes in a Q&E (question and example) format. For instance, Obama, listing his daughters’ admirable qualities, writes, “Have I told you that you are a healer?” Then on the opposite page he waxes lyrical about Sitting Bull, “who healed broken hearts and broken promises.” (Not specifically mentioned are Mr. Bull’s deep distrust of the U.S. government and the good reasons for that.)

The illustrations, done by the illustrious Loren Long, are striking. And the compilation of figures is primed to pull on just about everyone’s patriotic heartstrings. In addition to Sitting Bull, Obama invokes Georgia O’Keeffe, Albert Einstein, Jackie Robinson, Billie Holiday, Helen Keller, Maya Lin, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, Jr., Neil Armstrong, Cesar Chavez, Abe Lincoln and George Washington. But the book seems more designed for winning melting-pot points than children’s hearts and minds, given that most of the poetic descriptions would do little but generate questions for 3-and-up readers.

Take Jackie Robinson’s embodiment of bravery: “A man named Jackie Robinson played baseball/ and showed us all/ how to turn fear to respect/ and respect to love.” It evokes a sense of being at Glenn Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor, where heartwarming, lovely sounding, largely nonsensical vagaries — like instructions to “wrap truth in boldness” — generated applause without understanding. What does it mean, for example, when Obama says Jane Addams taught people to “let their spirits grow wide” or that MLK “saw the birth of his dream in us”? These are nice sentiments — but much easier to express to humans who aren’t known for asking questions and requiring specifics.

It does beg a comparison to Democrats and their generally muddled messages. But the more practical implication of the book’s style is that parents reading Of Thee I Sing to their children better brush up on their history first — because they’ll be doing most of the story-telling.

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