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  • Obamafiction for Children:Imagining the Forty-Fourth U.S. President
  • Philip Nel (bio)

In a column published five days after the 2008 election, journalist Jason Whitlock said of the president-elect's life: "His is a tale that should be read aloud at bedtime in every American neighborhood." It was already being read aloud in some neighborhoods. Even before Senator Obama had won the election, there were twelve juvenile titles about his life: two picture books, nine chapter books, and one comic book. From the election to the end of his first year in office, another forty-seven books were published: thirty-six more chapter books, seven more picture books, two comic books, one book of poetry, and one board book. And that doesn't include the Obama Paper Dolls book, coloring and activity books, the titles about Bo the dog, nor the many books about Michelle, Sasha, and Malia.

To have this many children's books about a candidate—or about a president so soon in his term of office—is unusual. During the campaign, Republican presidential candidate John McCain had seven titles to Obama's twelve: five chapter books, one comic book, and one picture book (My Dad, John McCain, written by his daughter Meghan McCain). During George W. Bush's presidential campaign, there were two juvenile titles about him. By the end of the first year of his presidency, add another four. By the end of his eight-year presidency, Bush inspired twenty-nine fewer books than Obama did in his first year—thirty titles in all, and that includes one anti-Bush satire, Dan Piraro's The Three Little Pigs Buy the White House (2004). The marked difference in tone between the Bush book titles and the Obama book titles suggest that publishers and authors see the forty-fourth president quite differently from the forty-third. Two thousand and one brought us Daniel Cohen's George W. Bush: The Family Business, Tim McNeese's George W. Bush: First President of the New Century, and Ann Gaines's George W. Bush: Our Forty-Third President. [End Page 334] In contrast, 2009 gave us Tim Alexander's Barack Obama: Hope for the World, Jude K. Odu's Our President—Barack Obama: The Illustrated Story of Obama's Inspiring Journey, and Bob Carlton and Ariele Gentiles's Barack Obama: An American Story. The "First President of the New Century," George W. Bush merely entered "The Family Business," but Barack Obama's "American Story" offers "Hope for the World."1

To examine how these Obama biographies attempt to fit him into dominant national myths, this essay focuses primarily on visual representations—picture books and comic books—with a particular emphasis on two pre-election picture books from 2008: Nikki Grimes and Bryan Collier's Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope, and Jonah Winter and A. G. Ford's Barack. I make these two a primary focus because they're the first picture books, have major publishing houses behind them, and seem to be the most popular children's books about Obama. As of March 2009, Grimes and Collier's book had sold 325,000 copies and was in its sixteenth printing; both books have been on the New York Times Book Review's bestseller list (Galupo). Barack has been so successful that Ford has illustrated two sequels, both written by Deborah Hopkinson: Michelle (published September 2009) and First Family (published December 2009). With the exception of the sole anti-Obama children's book (Help! Mom! Radicals Are Ruining My Country!, on which more later), in children's books about the forty-fourth president, attempts to reify Obama as an ideal American collide with his more complex history, sometimes even effacing his race.

The books' impulse to portray Obama as a role model is both progressive and regressive. The impulse is progressive because, as Rudine Sims Bishop has noted, "all children who read or are read to need to see themselves represented as part of humanity" (qtd. in Russell 85). In this sense, these books follow in the traditions of earlier picture books about African American history, such as Hildegarde Hoyt Swift and Lynd Ward's North Star Shining...