Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Prez's picture book

Although President Obama's Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters (Knopf) came in too late for review in the Horn Book Magazine, I thought I might offer a few comments here.

Like most celebrity picture books (by which I mean picture books written by people famous for doing something other than writing books for children) the book has a Message. With a conceit of self-esteem building for his daughters, Obama's book asks a series of questions such as "Have I told you that you are creative?" and "Have I told you that you have your own song?" Each question is amplified by a thumbnail portrait of a famous American: Georgia O'Keeffe exemplifies creativity; Billie Holiday "sang beautiful blues to the world." It's a gallery of the usual suspects -- others include Martin Luther King, Jr., Helen Keller, Jackie Robinson, and George Washington -- with only the unexpected choice of architect Maya Lin ("Have I told you how important it is to honor others' sacrifice?") adding much surprise. The inclusion of Jane Addams, Cesar Chavez and Sitting Bull may limit the audience to left-leaners, although the radical ideals of these Americans are only described in the gentlest of ways ("Cesar picketed, prayed, and talked"). The writing is sometimes windily portentous ("we watched [Neil Armstrong's] lunar landing leaps, which made us brave enough to take our own, big bold strides") but I guess that is how Presidents think they are supposed to talk. No-nonsense facts about each subject are at the back of the book.

Loren Long's acrylic pictures have genuine warmth, however generalized, with portraits of the American heroes facing small, neat figures of (presumably) Malia and Sasha joined, as the book goes on, by each of the profiled subjects as he or she might have appeared as a child. It's a clever idea and beautifully executed. The Thomas Hart Benton style Long frequently employs is here well-suited to the subject.

I think it would be hard to read the book out loud without sounding pompous, particularly in the closing pages ("Have I told you that they are all a part of you? Have I told you that you are one of them, and that you are the future?") but those who could read aloud Susan Jeffers' "Chief Seattle" book without blushing might not have any trouble. The question, as always, is: would this book have been published had it been written by someone else? The answer, as it usually is, is probably not, but the pictures do give the book some claim to legitimacy (something Long managed once before when he illustrated a not-bad picture book by Madonna, Mr. Peabody's Apples). I can see kids asking for this and making claim to a favorite page or hero. I can also see parents wanting to read it to children for all the wrong reasons -- because it builds self-esteem or instills good values -- but we can only hope that the kids will either set them straight or vote with their feet.

--Roger Sutton


  1. Roger, don't you think the "written by President Obama" part is going to limit this to left-leaners in the first place? Anyone who makes the leap over that fence isn't likely to be fazed by a little early-twentieth-century settlement work.

  2. Wendy, I do appreciate the inclusion of Chavez, etc. as evidence that he hasn't caved completely. ;-)

  3. Roger,

    I found a scan of the Sitting Bull page online. It looks kind of creepy. Here's the link to the image:

    Did Long do that for other pages as well?