Of Thee I Sing, Baby

Of Thee I Sing

By Barack Obama. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2010.  40 pages. $17.99

When I was a kid, President Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage was inescapable—but though it seemed family-friendly, it wasn’t for kids. Inspirational, sure, and community-spirited in that innocuous football-game cheer kind of way, but also militaristically creepy and too struggle-heavy. And, of course, boring to read.

Barack Obama’s a savvier popular writer. Having done well with his inspirational books for grown-ups, he now moves smoothly into the children’s charts, targeting an audience he knows well from being a parent.

Of Thee I Sing is brilliantly structured and marketed. It’s titled in a personal way, as “A Letter to My Daughters.” It begins and ends with pictures of the Obama family’s pet dog. That tone, and the complementary colorful cheeriness of Loren Long’s illustrations in general, sets a gentle, comfortably down-to-earth context for book’s stirring examples of grand American heroism.

The briefly told stories of Helen Keller, Neil Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Albert Einstein, Cesar Chavez et al. (yeah, it’s quite a range) are introduced with affirmations about how special Barack’s (and by extension, everybody’s) children are. My own daughters took to it immediately.

A lot of people have expressed disappointment with Barack Obama’s pace in fixing every last thing that’s wrong with this country. Whenever it’s appropriate to look back at his legacy as a leader—and hopefully that time will be at least six years, not two years, from now—I think I’ll be remembering this positivist, uplifting, culturally astute and unassumingly education picture book as one of his quiet triumphs.