Obama chil­dren’s books: What are they sell­ing?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY SCOTT GALUPO

Pres­i­dent Obama, the mer­chan­dis­ing phe­nom­e­non, has been a boon to side­walk T-shirt ven­dors ev­ery­where.

Less con­spic­u­ous, per­haps, is the equally ro­bust suc­cess of the chil­dren’s book in­dus­try in mar­ket­ing Mr. Obama’s hope­ful aura and per­sonal his­tory to par­ents of young chil­dren.

Are chil­dren’s book pub­lish­ers seek­ing to in­doc­tri­nate im­pres­sion­able young read­ers — or are they sim­ply obey­ing the laws of sup­ply and de­mand?

When the coun­try elects a new pres­i­dent, pub­lish­ers char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally is­sue a bi­og­ra­phy or two geared to­ward young read­ers.

It’s a civic-minded, thumb­nail his­tory ser­vice for text-starved schools and dili­gent par­ents. Scholas­tic’s Rookie Bi­ogra­phies ser ies, for in­stance, touted Ge­orge W. Bush’s back story thus: “Young read­ers will learn how he started in the oil busi­ness and owned a base­ball team be­fore go­ing into pol­i­tics.”

But in the case of Mr. Obama, pub­lish­ers are tap­ping into un­usual lev­els of ex­cite­ment and cu­rios­ity.

Justin Chanda, vice pres­i­dent of Si­mon & Schus­ter’s Books for Young Read­ers im­print, said he and his team felt rum­bles of a larger pres­ence the day af­ter Mr. Obama’s tri­umph in the Jan­uary 2008 Iowa cau­cuses.

They wanted a book — dou­ble-quick.

In in­dus­try par­lance, they call it a “crash.”

There was the pos­si­bil­ity, to be sure, that they were jump­ing his­tory’s gun. The ju­nior se­na­tor from Illi­nois had been a na­tional fig­ure for lit­tle more than three years. He hadn’t even won the nom­i­na­tion of his party, let alone the pres­i­dency.

“We made the de­ci­sion to pub­lish ei­ther way,” Mr. Chanda said. “Here’s some­body who’s in­spir­ing so many peo­ple and has so much to say. He’s go­ing to be a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure ei­ther way.

“You wanted to be first to mar­ket and to catch the wave,” he said.

Au­thor Nikki Grimes’ “Barack Obama: Son of Prom­ise, Child of Hope” — pitched to chil­dren ages 5 to 10 — hit book­stores in Au­gust. It tells Mr. Obama’s story through the eyes of a black boy watch­ing, with his mother, the would-be pres­i­dent on tele­vi­sion. Its cover fea­tures an im­age of Mr. Obama’s face bathed in shafts of light — iconic in the lit­eral, re­li­gious sense of the word.

With 325,000 copies sold, the book has been an as­ton­ish­ing suc­cess, buoyed suc­ces­sively by Mr. Obama’s pri­mary and gen- eral elec­tion vic­to­ries and his inau­gu­ra­tion.

“We’re in our 16th print­ing, and it just will not stop,” Mr. Chanda said.

Few would deny that young read­ers rep­re­sent a large and ea­ger mar­ket for bi­ogra­phies of Mr. Obama, whose per­sonal story is at once dra­matic, in­struc­tive and quintessen­tially Amer­i­can.

There also are con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal fig­ures with com­pelling per­sonal tales rich in lessons for young read­ers about over­com­ing ad­ver­sity and beat­ing the odds — Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin, to name two.

Has the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try been as re­cep­tive to such sto­ries from the other side of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum?

“It’s a ques­tion that an­swers it­self, isn’t it?” said con­ser­va­tive En­counter Books pub­lisher Roger Kimball.

He called the surge of Obama bi­ogra­phies “a kind of vom­it­ing forth of a cer­tain species of po­lit­i­cally cor­rect sen­ti­men­tal­ity that has pen­e­trated ev­ery nook and cranny of the cul­ture.”

Os­ten­si­bly dis­prov­ing, but per­haps con­firm­ing, Mr. Kimball’s hunch is the ex­is­tence of a pic­ture book about Mr. McCain — au­thored by Meghan McCain and ti­tled “My Dad, John McCain.”

Chil­dren’s writer Jonah Win­ter’s “Barack,” with il­lus­tra­tions by A.G. Ford, was pub­lished on a HarperCollins im­print in Septem­ber. The stor y of Mr. Obama’s “en­chanted jour­ney” spent three weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.

Mr. Win­ter said he “can prac­ti­cally pin­point the mo­ment” when he de­cided to write about Mr. Obama. He was vis­it­ing a friend in Birm­ing­ham, Ala., the day af­ter Mr. Obama’s crush­ing de­feat of Sen. Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton in South Carolina.

As it hap­pened, an Obama rally was be­ing staged blocks away from the friend’s house. They at­tended and came away emo­tion­ally af­fected.

Mr. Win­ter, 46, grew up in Dal­las, with coun­ter­cul­tur­ally minded artist par­ents; he re­mem­bers wear­ing peace signs on his lapels on his first day of first grade. The chil­dren’s books he has writ­ten — about Muham­mad Ali, Roberto Cle­mente, Dizzy Gille­spie — of­ten deal with his­tor­i­cal fig­ures who over­came racism.

That a black man was within strik­ing dis­tance of the pres­i­dency and seemed to ap­peal to a mul­tira­cial au­di­ence in Alabama, of all places, res­onated his­tor­i­cally and per­son­ally for Mr. Win­ter.

“It sud­denly occurred to me: This guy could po­ten­tially be­come the next pres­i­dent. I want to write a book about him, and I want to do it quickly,” he said.

Garen Thomas’ “Yes We Can,” a bi­og­ra­phy for more ad­vanced young read­ers, was re­leased in June. It has since been up­dated to ac­count for the dra­matic events that fol­lowed. Also, books orig­i­nally writ­ten for adults, such as David Men­dell’s “Obama: From Prom­ise to Power,” have been adapted for young read­ers.

Is there some­thing fishy about the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try’s haste to anoint Barack Obama in the eyes of uniquely im­pres­sion­able read­ers?

Mr. Win­ter has seen on­line re­views of his book ac­cus­ing him of ped­dling “com­mu­nist pro­pa­ganda.”

He said the charge is “ab­surd” and that the job of writ­ing books that con­nect with chil­dren ne­ces­si­tates sim­pli­fi­ca­tion.

Then again, he said, he doesn’t shrink from what he con­sid­ers the over­ar­ch­ing call­ing of his work. “Ob­vi­ously, I’m po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated,” he said.

Ms. Grimes said her book was “not in­tended as a po­lit­i­cal primer.”

“The core of this story,” she said, “is the power of hope and the power of dream­ing. My de­sire is that read­ers, whether black, brown, red, yel­low or white, will come away re­al­iz­ing that any­thing they dream is at­tain­able, that there are no im­pos­si­ble dreams, that hope cou­pled with hard work can lead them to achieve what­ever fu­ture they imag­ine for them­selves.”

Mr. Chanda, the pub­lish­ing ex­ec­u­tive, said his in­dus­try, at bot­tom, is meet­ing an ob­vi­ous de­mand from the mar­ket­place. Two weeks af­ter Mr. Obama’s inau­gu­ra­tion, Si­mon & Schus­ter churned out 150,000 copies of “Change Has Come: An Artist Cel­e­brates Our Amer­i­can Spirit,” a slen­der book of blackand-white draw­ings by Kadir Nel­son set to one-line snatches of Mr. Obama’s stump-sea­soned rhetoric.

It’s the na­ture of chil­dren’s book pub­lish­ing to re­act quickly to real-world events, Mr. Nel­son said.

Mr. Chanda said he sus­pects he would have sim­i­larly rush­com­mis­sioned a book on the moon land­ing if he had been in the same po­si­tion in 1969.

“Clearly, Obama’s life is in­spir­ing peo­ple,” he said. “That in and of it­self mer­ited do­ing th­ese books. This was some­one that peo­ple were go­ing to read about and tell their kids about it. That’s my job: What do par­ents want to share with their chil­dren?”

ROD LAMKEY JR. / THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

Get­ting the kids to look up to him: Pres­i­dent Barack Obama chats with Nick Aiello, 5, at their cour t side seats as the Wash­ing­ton Wizards play the Chicago Bulls at the Ver­i­zon Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. on Feb. 27.

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