Sunday, January 8, 2012

Of Thee I Sing

I wanted my first post for 2012 to be upbeat. To me, the beauty of a new year is that it's a chance to start fresh, and to feel that anything might be possible.

So, browsing the shelves in a local bookstore looking for inspiration, I discovered a picture book written by a celebrity. I don't ordinarily write about celebrity books, as celebrities don't need me to write about them. But in this case, the celebrity is President Barack Obama and the book a perfect one on which to begin a New Year.

As noted in the New York Times, he is the first sitting president to write a book for kids, though other first family members have written stories for children, including Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton.

The book, For Thee I sing, is in the form of a letter written by the president to his young daughters. He begins: Have I told you lately how wonderful you are?/ How the sound of your feet/ running from afar/ brings dancing rhythms to my day? 

The words, Have I told you, are then repeated in a series of questions, such as Have I told  you that you are creative? Have I told you you are smart? and Have I told you that you are brave? The repetition is lyrical and lovely to read aloud.

Each question is followed by an example of a famous person who contributed to the nation, such as Georgia O'Keefe, Albert Einstein, and Jackie Robinson. For example, of Jackie Robinson, Obama writes: A man named Jackie Robinson played baseball/ and showed us all/ how to turn fear to respect/ and respect to love. /He swung his bat with the grace and the strength of a lion/ and gave brave dreams to other dreamers. 

In all, thirteen Americans, black, white, yellow and red, both men and women are included. At the end, illustrator Loren Long provides us with a full page spread of of about fifty children, all different. Obama writes: Have I told  you that America is made up of people of every kind? . . . to keep up the fight/to work and build upon all that is good/ in our nation.

Who else could have better highlighted the contributions of such a wide array of diverse individuals that include Cesar Chavez, Jane Addams, Helen Keller, George Washington, and Martin Luther King to mention a few more?

That the United States has an African-American president is often taken for granted, not seen for the stunning change that it represented.  But anyone who studies American History, understands the legacy of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the civil rights era, has to marvel at and celebrate what it reflects about Americans today.

The book has been criticized because it includes Sitting Bull, the victor at Little Bighorn. I don't have a problem with it.  But even if I didn't agree with his inclusion in the book, I could never argue that Barack Obama lacks the authority to write a picturebook about Americans who have accomplished great things. He did, and To Thee I sing is an important, uplifting book for kids.

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