Wednesday, March 4, 2009

President Obama, the merchandising phenomenon, has been a boon to sidewalk T-shirt vendors everywhere.

Less conspicuous, perhaps, is the equally robust success of the children’s book industry in marketing Mr. Obama’s hopeful aura and personal history to parents of young children.

Are children’s book publishers seeking to indoctrinate impressionable young readers - or are they simply obeying the laws of supply and demand?

When the country elects a new president, publishers characteristically issue a biography or two geared toward young readers.

It’s a civic-minded, thumbnail history service for text-starved schools and diligent parents. Scholastic’s Rookie Biographies series, for instance, touted George W. Bush’s back story thus: “Young readers will learn how he started in the oil business and owned a baseball team before going into politics.”

But in the case of Mr. Obama, publishers are tapping into unusual levels of excitement and curiosity.

Justin Chanda, vice president of Simon & Schuster’s Books for Young Readers imprint, said he and his team felt rumbles of a larger presence the day after Mr. Obama’s triumph in the January 2008 Iowa caucuses.

They wanted a book - double-quick.

In industry parlance, they call it a “crash.”

There was the possibility, to be sure, that they were jumping history’s gun. The junior senator from Illinois had been a national figure for little more than three years. He hadn’t even won the nomination of his party, let alone the presidency.

“We made the decision to publish either way,” Mr. Chanda said. “Here’s somebody who’s inspiring so many people and has so much to say. He’s going to be a historical figure either way.

“You wanted to be first to market and to catch the wave,” he said.

Author Nikki Grimes’ “Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope” - pitched to children ages 5 to 10 - hit bookstores in August. It tells Mr. Obama’s story through the eyes of a black boy watching, with his mother, the would-be president on television. Its cover features an image of Mr. Obama’s face bathed in shafts of light - iconic in the literal, religious sense of the word.

With 325,000 copies sold, the book has been an astonishing success, buoyed successively by Mr. Obama’s primary and general election victories and his inauguration.

“We’re in our 16th printing, and it just will not stop,” Mr. Chanda said.

Few would deny that young readers represent a large and eager market for biographies of Mr. Obama, whose personal story is at once dramatic, instructive and quintessentially American.

There also are conservative political figures with compelling personal tales rich in lessons for young readers about overcoming adversity and beating the odds - Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin, to name two.

Has the publishing industry been as receptive to such stories from the other side of the political spectrum?

“It’s a question that answers itself, isn’t it?” said conservative Encounter Books publisher Roger Kimball.

He called the surge of Obama biographies “a kind of vomiting forth of a certain species of politically correct sentimentality that has penetrated every nook and cranny of the culture.”

Ostensibly disproving, but perhaps confirming, Mr. Kimball’s hunch is the existence of a picture book about Mr. McCain - authored by Meghan McCain and titled “My Dad, John McCain.”

Children’s writer Jonah Winter’s “Barack,” with illustrations by A.G. Ford, was published on a HarperCollins imprint in September. The story of Mr. Obama’s “enchanted journey” spent three weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.

Mr. Winter said he “can practically pinpoint the moment” when he decided to write about Mr. Obama. He was visiting a friend in Birmingham, Ala., the day after Mr. Obama’s crushing defeat of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in South Carolina.

As it happened, an Obama rally was being staged blocks away from the friend’s house. They attended and came away emotionally affected.

Mr. Winter, 46, grew up in Dallas, with counterculturally minded artist parents; he remembers wearing peace signs on his lapels on his first day of first grade. The children’s books he has written - about Muhammad Ali, Roberto Clemente, Dizzy Gillespie - often deal with historical figures who overcame racism.

That a black man was within striking distance of the presidency and seemed to appeal to a multiracial audience in Alabama, of all places, resonated historically and personally for Mr. Winter.

“It suddenly occurred to me: This guy could potentially become the next president. I want to write a book about him, and I want to do it quickly,” he said.

Garen Thomas’ “Yes We Can,” a biography for more advanced young readers, was released in June. It has since been updated to account for the dramatic events that followed. Also, books originally written for adults, such as David Mendell’s “Obama: From Promise to Power,” have been adapted for young readers.

Is there something fishy about the publishing industry’s haste to anoint Barack Obama in the eyes of uniquely impressionable readers?

Mr. Winter has seen online reviews of his book accusing him of peddling “communist propaganda.”

He said the charge is “absurd” and that the job of writing books that connect with children necessitates simplification.

Then again, he said, he doesn’t shrink from what he considers the overarching calling of his work. “Obviously, I’m politically motivated,” he said.

Ms. Grimes said her book was “not intended as a political primer.”

“The core of this story,” she said, “is the power of hope and the power of dreaming. My desire is that readers, whether black, brown, red, yellow or white, will come away realizing that anything they dream is attainable, that there are no impossible dreams, that hope coupled with hard work can lead them to achieve whatever future they imagine for themselves.”

Mr. Chanda, the publishing executive, said his industry, at bottom, is meeting an obvious demand from the marketplace. Two weeks after Mr. Obama’s inauguration, Simon & Schuster churned out 150,000 copies of “Change Has Come: An Artist Celebrates Our American Spirit,” a slender book of black-and-white drawings by Kadir Nelson set to one-line snatches of Mr. Obama’s stump-seasoned rhetoric.

It’s the nature of children’s book publishing to react quickly to real-world events, Mr. Chanda said.

Mr. Chanda said he suspects he would have similarly rush-commissioned a book on the moon landing if he had been in the same position in 1969.

“Clearly, Obama’s life is inspiring people,” he said. “That in and of itself merited doing these books. This was someone that people were going to read about and tell their kids about it. That’s my job: What do parents want to share with their children?”

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