OF THEE I SING: A Letter to my Daughters Barack Obama, ill. Loren Long, 2010, Alfred A. Knopf [NZ agents: Random House] 35 pages, hardback, US$17.99 [NZ$42.99]
“Have I told you lately how wonderful you are?”
You should avoid being rude about books by celebrities because you never know who’s written them. Barack Obama certainly has the talent to write this book but I imagine a wide range of editorial assistance and advice was also applied. No matter, the result is an excellent children’s picture book. The text is a prose-poem, a letter to the president’s two daughters, Malia (12) and Sasha (9), directing them (and the reader) to thirteen individuals who have played an important role in America’s history.
This is very much a father’s book, representing his hope that his daughters will be able to achieve their potential. Each double-page spread follows a similar pattern. His two daughters see a young girl about their age, holding paint brushes. “Have I told you that you are creative?” asks their father. On the facing page is a stunning portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe painting a flower, after “she moved to the desert and painted petals, bone, bark.”
On another page the question is, “Have I told you that you are brave?” and the girls are looking at a young boy with a baseball bat. The facing page reveals him as Jackie Robinson who “showed us all how to turn fear to respect and respect to love.”
The adjectives and their exemplars accumulate. Albert Einstein is ‘smart,’ Helen Keller is ‘strong’ and Cesar Chavez is ‘inspiring.’
A marvellous feature of Loren Long’s illustrations is that the young people gather together on the left-hand page as each hero is revealed on the facing page. Close study shows that they are interacting. Sitting Bull admires O’Keeffe’s palette, while Martin Luther King Jr and Alan Armstrong exchange a Bible and a rocket.
Some of his pictures show superb imagination. Maya Lin is shown with her face reflected among the names on the polished granite Vietnam Veterans Memorial which she designed. Sitting Bull is a personification of the prairie and its creatures.
More than just pretty pictures and well-chosen words, Of Thee I Sing is a reminder that “America is made up of people of every kind.” The magnificent double-page illustration at the conclusion makes this point firmly with a group portrait of the 13 heroes as children, along with several rows of other young Americans, who may be other important figures of the past or even of the future. Obama’s conclusion makes the same point:
“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?
And have I told you that I love you.”
Brief biographies provide a springboard for further research.
This is an excellent book, beautiful and thought-provoking. Its skilful and moving blend of text and pictures will encourage a generation to examine their roots and live their dreams.
This book makes it clear that Obama is proud of his daughters, but it also shows that they have every reason to be proud of him.
3rd December 2010