A bounty of Obama kid lit
By Stephen Lowman
Plenty of books have been written about President Obama this year. Journalists and political insiders have turned out hardbacks promising thrilling new details. In his book "The Audacity to Win," campaign manager David Plouffe wrote "The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory." Conservatives have their own titles, such as Michelle Malkin's "Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies." And don't forget about all those pretty photo-filled coffee table books.
If those books have cornered a large chunk of the non-fiction shelves, then check out what's happening over in the children's section. It's overflowing with Obama kid lit. And, implicitly and explicitly, those books are grappling with the subject of race.
Phil Nel, an English professor at Kansas State University, has tallied the titles and counts 48 children's books have been published about Obama since he took office in January. That number does not include the dozen books published prior to his presidency or the numerous books with subjects such as Bo, the First Puppy.
Six children's books were published about George W. Bush during his first year in office, according to Nel. After two terms the total was 30.
What makes the 44th president different? And how is he being depicted?
"The Obamas are a family you can recognize," said children's book author Deborah Hopkinson, and young readers "want to know about kids in the White House that could be just like them or their classmates."
Hopkinson's latest book is "First Family" (HarperCollins). Illustrated by AG Ford and available next month, the book chronicles a day in the life of America's most famous family. Malia and Sasha make their bed. The president and First Lady hit the gym. Bo is walked and the family reads a book before going to bed.
While Hopkinson chose to portray President Obama as an ordinary dad who just happens to hold an extraordinarily powerful position, other books have stressed the historic features of the presidency.
Nel said the books "are really wrestling with the idea of how to portray the country's first mixed-race president."
For Nikki Grimes, author of "Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope" (Simon & Schuster), it is Obama's unique background that makes for a compelling story.
"When I looked at his childhood it seemed perfectly suited for children, offering such rich and colorful backgrounds," Grimes wrote in an email. "Then there was the fact that he grew up without the presence of his father. That aspect, alone, would resonate with countless children. I also loved the work ethic passed down to him by his mother. What a wonderful example to place before young readers, particularly young readers of African American descent!"
In Grimes's book, published before the election, God speaks to Obama. He is portrayed as an exceptional man of biracial background who grows up to unite the American people.
The book is written in free verse -- here is how Grimes describes the announcement of Obama's presidential candidacy: "Barack smiled on a sea of faces / from Wichita to Waikiki. / He saw whites and blacks, rich and poor, / Christians and Muslims and Jews; / he saw the ghosts of his parents, / of Gramps and Toot, / of Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK. / And on that special day / Barack was the bridge that held them together."
In an academic paper presented in Washington recently, Prof. Nel writes that books such as Grimes's "participate in what we might call Obamafiction, or the fantasy that Obama's success portends the success of others, and that his ascendance symbolizes a renewal of America's moral purpose."
Grimes said that not mentioning race would be "to ignore the elephant in the room" and that she believed Obama's story "could serve to inspire our youth."
"From my perspective, it was important to say, particularly to fatherless children of color, here is a person who shared many of the same struggles you do, and yet he rose to remarkable heights, so you have no excuses. Go for it. Follow your dreams. Work to make them a reality. Or, in other words, if Obama could do it, so can you."
In "First Family," Hopkinson makes no mention of race.
"It depends on the type of story you are telling," she said. "I think kids really get it without you having to hit them on the head with it. Race is not an issue for elementary school students."
Nel thinks the tendency in these books, on one hand, to ignore Obama's racial background, and on the other hand, to depict him as a figure that can transcend race, are equally problematic because they oversimplify a complex figure.
But he believes something else, too.
"This is a difficult topic," he said, "and I wouldn't want the assignment to create a [children's] book myself."
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