Monday 23 April 2018

Review: Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to my Daughters by Barack Obama illustrated by Loren Long

Random House, €13.99, Hardback

In 2004, while still a senator, Barack Obama was paid $1.9m to write three children's books. Of Thee I Sing, a picture book featuring illustrations by one of Madonna's illustrators, Loren Long, is the first of these.

It has a print run of 500,000 and the proceeds will be donated to helping families of injured military personnel.

Obama is the first US president to publish a children's book while sitting, though two presidents published books after leaving office: Theodore Roosevelt, with Hero Tales from American History, and Jimmy Carter, with The Little Baby Snoogle-Fleejer.

Subtitled A Letter to My Daughters, the book features 13 of his American heroes, from George Washington who "helped make an idea into a new country, strong and true"; to Sitting Bull for healing "broken hearts and broken promises"; to Maya Lin, the artist who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; and singer Billie Holiday.

Each double-page spread is laid out in a very particular manner. On the left-hand side Obama asks his daughters Malia and Sasha a question, such as, in the case of the Georgia O'Keeffe spread, "have I told you that you are creative?" The two girls are depicted watching a young Georgia, showing that the famous artist was once a child with hopes and dreams, just like them.

The opposite page shows O'Keeffe as an adult, painting a huge, swirling flower canvas. The text reads: "She helped us see big beauty in what is small: the hardness of stone and the softness of feather." However, no further information is given about the eccentric O'Keeffe, apart from a brief factual biography at the back.

All the historical figures are treated in the same way, which is a shame as most children are curious creatures. It might have been better to include more biographical information on them in the pages, although parents can go to the back and read it there.

Albert Einstein, Obama writes, "turned pictures in his mind into great advances in science". Martin Luther King "gave us a dream that all races and creeds would walk hand in hand". Neil Armstrong's steps on the moon "made us brave enough to take our own big, bold strides".

It's all very charming and it's Obama's way of introducing some great figures to his daughters and explaining how inspiring they were. "Have I told you that they are all a part of you?" Obama asks at the end, as he walks away with Malia and Sasha.

Written in an earnest, 'listen-up-kids-this-is-important' tone, the book's text, delivered by the right orator, might work as a rousing speech, but falls a bit flat on the printed page.

Overall, this is a well-meaning book, but it may interest adult Obama fans more than children. But kudos to the man for finding the time!

Irish Independent

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