Barack Obama’s Children’s Book

Fatherly advice and poor grammar.

Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters
By Barack Obama; illustrated by Loren Long
Knopf: $17.99 (hardcover)

When Random House announced they would publish President Barack Obama’s children’s book (Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters), Mike Luckovich drew an editorial cartoon for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution picturing Republican spokesman Newt Gingrich pointing at the book and observing, “Proof Obama hates adult readers.” As Luckovich’s cartoon comically pointed out, even so simple a thing as the appearance of a children’s book would likely spark reactions from the President’s relentless critics. Indeed, after the book was published, a Fox News forum objected to Obama’s choice of Sitting Bull among the thirteen Americans the book honored: the headline read “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Defeated U.S. General.”

Having now read the book, I can tell you that Of Thee I Sing is not as controversial as the brouhaha would suggest. Ostensibly written as a letter to his daughters Malia and Sasha, this picture book offers thirteen short tributes to an ethnically diverse group of Americans who shaped our nation: Georgia O’Keeffe, Albert Einstein, Jackie Robinson, Sitting Bull, Billie Holiday, Helen Keller, Maya Lin, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, Neil Armstrong, Cesar Chavez, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington. Each of these heroes is associated with a particular trait: so, Georgia O’Keeffe is “creative,” Jackie Robinson “brave,” Cesar Chavez “inspiring,” etc.

It would be difficult to label the book as self-serving; for one thing, profits go to a scholarship fund for wounded or fallen U.S. military personnel. Moreover, in offering a White House children’s book, Obama is simply following tradition and only doing what others have done when they penned offerings for youngsters: for example, Jimmy Carter (The Little Baby Snoogle-Fleejer) and first ladies Hilary Clinton (Dear Socks, Dear Buddy) and Laura Bush (Read All About It). As for precedents and presidents, Obama’s book is a kind of juvenile version of John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage.

So, there is little reason to complain about Obama’s Of Thee I Sing. There is also little reason to praise it.

Let’s begin with the illustrations. Loren Long’s pictures are workmanlike and upbeat but a few raise questions. Debbie Reese, a specialist in Native American children’s books, wonders if there isn’t something of a cliché in the fact that the drawing of Sitting Bull is the only non-realistic artwork in the book; in a pantheistic manner, the picture of the Sioux chief is intermingled with the landscape so that his eyes are buffalo while the trees and shrubs below his nose look like, I am sorry to say, unsightly boogers. The drawing of Einstein is also unfortunate. Surely, if you want (as the text suggests) to encourage kids to be “smart,” it’s counterproductive to present the cliché of the thinker as an absentminded professor, lost in thought, wandering outdoors in his bathrobe and pajamas.

When it comes to the prose, I wish President Obama had a better editor. In various parts there is a grammar error known as a “problems in parallelism” where you start a series in one way and should continue in that manner: so, for example, when Obama writes that Helen Keller was “strong” (adjective) and Jane Addams was “kind” (adjective), he shouldn’t write that Martin Luther King “wouldn’t give up” (a verb phrase); instead, his editor should have suggested a word like “persistent” (adjective). And a good editor might also have suggested the writer rethink an odd image where Jackie Robinson swings his bat “with the grace and strength of a lion,” a mixed metaphor which requires us to imagine upright and ambidextrous felines on the savannah. Finally, a good editor might have warned Obama about saccharin assumptions adults sometimes make about kids and their books — beginning with the arcane use of “Thee” in its title, through the treacly Rod-Stewart-like introduction–

Have I told you lately how wonderful you are?
How the sound of your feet
running from afar
brings dancing rhythms to my day?
How you laugh
and sunshine spills into the room?

Since Of Thee I Sing has been released for the Christmas trade, I realize I may sound like the Grinch reviewing a holiday book. Please understand that I am an Obama supporter, and I embrace his Politics of Hope. I just hoped for better.

This essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (December 2010). In retrospect, Fox News forum’s objection to Obama’s children’s book—as I mentioned, the headline read “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Defeated U.S. General” — made me scratch my head. Poor Obama. He seems to attract rabid knee-jerk objections. Another example: In September 2009 when he was about to follow tradition and give a presidential address to the country’s children at the start of the school year, wild-eyed critics warned about a White House’s plot to brainwash young minds with a socialist agenda. Parents kept kids home on the day of the speech. Some school boards banned the broadcast from their classrooms. And Obama went on to say what? Well, he urged kids to work hard, stay in school, and not watch so much television. Egad.

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13. February 2016 by
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