I kept putting off looking at President Barack Obama’s recently published children’s book, Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters, because—truth be told—I didn’t have high expectations for it. Even though President Obama has a proven track record in the publishing world—he’s the author of two bestselling books for adults—I’m generally skeptical of children’s books written by politicians, fearing that they’ll be too didactic or self-serving. But this past weekend, I finally sat down with Of Thee I Sing and was pleasantly surprised by what I found inside the handsome cover (superbly illustrated by Loren Long).
If you don’t already know, Of Thee I Sing, which was written before Obama took office, celebrates the accomplishments of 13 Americans. It’s a diverse list—from George Washington to Cesar Chavez, from Billie Holiday to Maya Lin. Written like a letter or poem addressed to his daughters, Obama begins his book with a series of loving questions: “Have I told you lately how wonderful you are? How the sound of your feet running from afar brings dancing rhythms to my day? How you laugh and sunshine spills into the room?” Then, on each double-page spread, he names traits that he sees in his daughters Malia and Sasha: “Have I told you that you are creative?” Opposite each featured trait is a picture and description of an American hero who personifies that quality. For creative, there’s Georgia O’Keefe; for smart, Albert Einstein; brave, Jackie Robinson; and so on. The left-hand pages show two little girls resembling Malia and Sasha looking intently at Long’s beautiful illustrations. With each turn of the page, they’re joined by the child-version of the hero being honored—until finally, the last spread depicts a diverse crowd of children, symbolizing America’s proud past and hope for the future. The book ends with another series of tender questions: “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?” Above the questions, you see the two girls walking ahead, hand-in-hand with their dad, who resembles Obama.
Politics aside, Of Thee I Sing is, textually and visually, an eloquent celebration of American history. It doesn’t provide in-depth biographies of famous Americans (though there is a page in the back that offers a little more detail about each person honored in the book). Instead, the goal is to inspire children and make the point that everyone has something to offer our society. I can see parents and teachers using this book to discuss the special traits and talents of their own children and to inspire them to learn more about the Americans featured in the pages. It’s also nice to know that Obama is donating his proceeds from the book to a scholarship fund for children of disabled and deceased veterans.
Have you read Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters? What do you think of it?