President Barack Obama’s picture-book survey of Great Americans in Of Thee I Sing appears calculated to offend as few readers as possible. Widely recognized as a thrilling speaker, here Obama provides run-of-the-mill patriotism that feels more dutiful than truly inspired—which probably shouldn’t surprise anybody, given that he reportedly wrote it in the weeks before his inauguration to fulfill a three-book deal with Random House.
Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters takes the form, as the subtitle indicates, of an address to his daughters, and it is kind of sweet in a self-conscious way. Obama uses a series of questions designed to highlight unique qualities as a vehicle to introduce figures from American history.
“Have I told you that you are smart?” he asks rhetorically, then continues by providing a brief snapshot of “[a] man named Albert Einstein / [who] turned pictures in his mind into giant advances in science, / changing the world / with energy and light.”
Neither Obama’s daughters nor less august readers and listeners will learn a lot about each figure, but his selection of characters indicates a thoughtful attempt to gather iconic figures that represent the American melting pot. In addition to Einstein, readers are introduced to Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackie Robinson, Sitting Bull, Billie Holiday, Helen Keller, Maya Lin, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King Jr., Neil Armstrong, Cesar Chavez, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Given the constraints of a 32-page picture book, he’s done well, though nitpickers can and probably will argue for weeks over the merits of any given person’s inclusion and/or exclusion.
While the text’s prose quality is uneven, Loren Long’s illustrations smooth it out some and provide visual interest. His typically lanky figures make a terrific fit for the president and his family, and his heroic, mural-like style suitably elevates the book’s subjects. Beneath each introductory question, readers see Sasha and Malia Obama from the rear, looking at the child-version of the American in question; on the facing page, above the brief description, a large portrait of that person, grown, appears. As the pages turn, Sasha and Malia are joined by those children, each in old-fashioned garb and often carrying some iconic identifier (O’Keeffe as a little girl holds a palette; Robinson carries a baseball bat).
Long’s greatest misstep is in forgoing a portrait of Sitting Bull, instead fashioning an idealized western landscape with his face superimposed in it (two bison serve as eyes). It’s a mystifying choice, particularly as Sitting Bull posed for photographs often and seemed to have no objection to having his image captured.
It’s inevitable in an enterprise like this one for the author’s celebrity to guarantee sales (though the Democrats’ recent “shellacking” makes one wonder whether the 500,000-copy print run will lead to lots of remainders next year). It’s also inevitable that, however well-meaning, the book itself will never arouse as much interest as its author.
In this case, readers, book and author alike will be best served by moving on.