Barack Obama's first children's book, Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters published today by Random House, features words exactly as you would expect them to be from the president: rhythmic, semi-poetic and inspirational, if not just a bit sappy. The illustrations by Loren Long, however, exceed all expectations: painted in a warm, hazy palette, the pictures feel at once dreamlike and vivid, familiar and unique.
The book begins with a series of questions addressed to the author's children: "Have I told you lately how wonderful you are?" Then, after the page turn, on the left hand side of a two-page spread: "Have I told you that you are creative?" Followed, on the right hand side, by:
A woman named Georgia O'Keeffe
moved to the desert and painted petals, bone, bark.
She helped us see big beauty in what is small:
the hardness of stone and the softness of feather.
The book continues with the same pattern throughout: The author pairs the rhetorical question, "Have I told you ...," as a refrain on the left page with various American luminaries on the right page. The examples cycle through the literal to metaphorical to inspirational to sentimental. For example, one spread states:
Have I told you that you are a healer?
Sitting Bull was a Sioux medicine man
who healed broken hearts and broken promises.
The passage continues:
Though he was put in prison,
his spirit soared free on the plains, and his wisdom
touched the generations.
Another section features Jane Addams, the Nobel Prize winning social reformer and founder of the Hull House, stating that she was "kind":
A woman named Jane Addams fed the poor
and helped them find jobs.
She opened doors and gave people hope.
She taught adults and invited children
to play and laugh and let their spirits grow wide.
At its best, President Obama's writing approaches a poetic rhythm:
Public spaces should be filled with art, she thought,
so that we can walk amidst it,
recalling the past and inspired to fix the future.
While at its worst, the prose are gooey and sentimental:
Her voice, full of sadness and joy,
made people feel deeply and add their melodies to the chorus.
While the book's thesis would be hard to disagree with -- that "people of all races, religions, and beliefs" compose and strengthen America -- the task of illustrating, both verbally and pictorially, this patchwork of people proves difficult without slipping into stereotypical, or altogether fictional, representations. Why do all the children look exactly the same, save varied skin tones?
Overall, the book feels just a bit too fantastical. The words and pictures are pretty, but also idealized and sentimental. Of Thee I Sing proves just how tricky it is to walk the fine line between inspirational and cheesy.
Interestingly, in this way, Long's illustrations invite many of the same critiques that have been made of Thomas Hart Benton, the artist that seems to have most clearly influenced him. Long's palette and mannered figures uncannily reflect those of Benton who was part of the American Regionalist movement of the 1930s. Benton and his contemporaries perpetuated the myth of an innocent, classless and isolated America, far removed from the problems facing Europe and the poverty of American cities at the time. As Modernist art from Paris and other European centers found its home in New York City with the newly established Museum Of Modern Art, artists such as John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton -- whose art Long's most clearly resembles -- continued to paint stylized scenes of farm lands, workers and greatly exaggerated scenes of the American West.
Of Thee I Sing seems to resemble the character of Regionalism. Yet, this is not to say that Long's, much like Benton's, paintings aren't beautiful. In fact, I find the exact opposite to be true. Long's paintings are some of the most exquisite illustrations in contemporary picture books, but as such, they beg the question: Is Of Thee I Sing too idealized? Too sentimental? Too much of a dream?
The book seems to raise these questions not only because of its art historical predecessor, but also because of its author. Is it fair to criticize President Obama's book because it seems to encapsulate many of the same aspects of his persona that have generated criticism of him recently? Or should we judge the book as a book alone?
Many celebrity authors face these same challenges when penning books. And books for children is a genre very familiar with celebrity authors. Hordes of actors and other television personalities have penned children's books of their own, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Will Smith, and Ricky Gervais. Many comedians have also penned kids books, including John Lithgow, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Jeff Foxworthy and Jimmy Fallon. Madonna, too, has her own children's book. And just last month, Steve Martin published Late for School, while Julianne Moore's popular Freckleface Strawberry series got its own Broadway play.
All told, Of Thee I Sing towers above most of these other picture books penned by celebrity authors. Not only are Loren Long's illustrations incredibly artful, but the text balances well with the images, creating a well paced and engaging picture book. It makes for an exciting read, despite the fame of its author.
Last month, the New York Times unleashed a watershed of fiery responses from librarians, parents, teachers and other fans of children's literature when it published an article with the headline, "Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children," which claimed, "The picture book, a mainstay of children's literature with its lavish illustrations, cheerful colors and large print wrapped in a glossy jacket, has been fading."
While bloggers across the web, from Roger Sutton, editor in chief of The Horn Book, to the only parent quoted in article itself, debunked that article, perhaps Obama's picture book will help reaffirm the importance -- as well as the vitality -- of the picture book.
With a first printing of a whopping 500,000 copies, Of Thee I Sing promises to become a bestseller. With its stunning illustrations and subtle text, it deserves to be heralded as much more.
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