In Of Thee I Sing, Obama pays tribute to 13 famous Americans and their legacies in history, art and culture. The book is structured as a letter to his daughters, which allows Obama to address the reader directly, just like one of his speeches…except this time he’s facing children, not voters.
And instead of presenting policy, Obama has to convince kids that these people (many of them bit characters in school history books) are extraordinary—in about 50 words each.
Every hero is introduced by a question, followed by a description of his or her feats.
Have I told you that you are smart?
That you braid great ideas with imagination?
A man named Albert Einstein
turned pictures in his mind into giant advances in science,
changing the world
with energy and light.
Sometimes the prose reads well:
A woman named Georgia O’Keeffe
moved to the desert and painted petals, bone, bark.
At other times the result is vague fluffiness:
[Jane Addams] taught adults and invited children
to play and laugh and let their spirits grow wide.
But more important is content; Obama’s choice of historical figures is often surprising. Aside from the obvious (George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), Obama included Helen Keller, Cesar Chavez, Jane Addams and Sitting Bull. The scientist in me rejoiced at the addition of Albert Einstein and Neil Armstrong. For sports there’s Jackie Robinson; Billie Holiday and Georgia O’Keeffe took care of the arts. The biggest shocker was Maya Lin, the architect behind the Vietnam Veterans and Civil Rights Memorials. I doubt many elementary school kids know her name—but they will, once they read this book.
At its best, Of Thee I Sing could inspire kids to dig deeper into history. It already sold 50,000 copies in the first five days. Thousands of teachers and librarians will bring the book to millions of schoolkids. Maybe one of them will be curious about Sitting Bull, and later, through other books, learn more about our dark history with Native American rights. Or perhaps another kid will read more about Einstein and develop an interest in physics. In the end, if the book produces more questions than answers, then it will have been a success.