Friday, January 09, 2009

Barack's Biographers: Telling Obama's Story

Campaign biographies usually fall short of the best of the genre, for good reason. Usually assembled hurriedly by journeymen writers and illustrators, with familiar file photos added to the mix, and often tending toward the partisan, they also have the obvious problem of being unable to foresee the eventual significance of the candidate. Yet, in the pre-inauguration period of a new president, they are what we have. Here are some biographies of Barack Obama aimed toward young listeners and readers.

Award-winning author and poet Nikki Grimes uses the frame-story device to involve children in her account of the early life of Barack Obama in Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope. The story begins with a African-American child asking his mother who this "Braco-what?" is. Mom sits him beside her on their sofa and tells the story of a child of a mid-Western mother and Kenyan father ("his mama, white as whipped cream, his daddy, black as ink"), his early childhood in Indonesia and growing-up years with his mother's parents in Hawaii, and a brief summary of his education and early career. Drawing primarily from Obama's own autobiographical works, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, (Vintage) Grimes' work, with its simple emphasis on overcoming problems and the importance of dreams and hope in everyone's life, has the advantage of being directed toward younger children but occasionally slips into a melodramatic tone. Award-winning artist Bryan Collier uses collage and photos well, but his illustrations are a bit uneven and sometimes suffer from the same "staginess" as the text. Again, however, they do benefit from being designed to appeal directly to the early elementary reader/listener.

Jonah Winter's Barack is also aimed at the elementary reader, covering Obama's pivotal childhood experiences to show how he became the man he is. Again, the author's admiration for his subject shows, and the illustrations by A. G. Ford vary in quality: his portrayals of Barack are generally well done, but his depictions of small children are, unfortunately for his intended audience, sometimes a bit awkward. Winter's theme is Obama's journey toward an understanding of his biracial background and how that understanding led to his own belief that America's blended makeup is an valuable asset in this century.

As sources of information for young children who may know little about our new president, these two read-aloud picture book biographies, while not perfect, are the best out there for the basic facts of Obama's early years. Roberta Edwards' Barack Obama: United States President: Updated and Expanded, takes a different tack, aiming directly toward early independent readers themselves.

This short beginning chapter book uses accessible vocabulary and an easy conversational style to cover Obama's personal story. Lively color photographs, interspersed with some black-and-white snapshots and color illustrations appear on each facing page and are well corrolated with the accompanying text. Photos of Obama as a small boy, with his Kenyan relatives, with his high school basketball teammates, and in informal scenes with daughters Malia and Sasha will appeal to the young independent reader.

Garen Thomas' Yes We Can: A Biography of President Barack Obama in tone and appearance feels more like a standard presidential biography. Republished in December with thirty-two additional pages of text and photos of the final days of the campaign and election, this solid piece of non-fiction writing, while favorable to the candidate, is probably no more praising in tone than the average presidential biography we've all read in the upper elementary/middle school years. Thomas, the noted editor of the Coretta Scott King Award book Day of Tears by Julius Lester, has obviously learned how to write for the middle and young adult reader. The text is appealing and informative, with attention to Obama's personal development--from the third-grader who wrote of his yearning to become president to the adult who followed his dream from academic success at Harvard Law School to become the first African-American nominee for president.

Befitting his older readership, Thomas is able to include complex issues in American politics, with set-in text boxes which explain terms and with backmatter which offer some additional information for the reader. Unconfined by the thirty-two page format of the picture book which limited Grimes and Winter, Thomas is free to include many personal stories as well as a wider discussion of campaign issues such as racism and poverty in American life, even including the Jeremiah Wright episode and follow-up quotations from Obama's speeches and interviews. In many cases, especially in the introductions to each chapter, the author uses Obama's own words to explain issues and positions. Plenty of photos break up the text and highlight Obama's early life and career points. This is a substantial nonfiction book, highly readable and appealing for its intended readership.

Written by the editors of Life Magazine, The American Journey of Barack Obama, with the familiar look and feel of this popular series, is fully accessible to the young adult reader. Illustrated lavishly and effectively with black-and-white and color photographs, this book fleshes out the bare bones of the now-familiar story with skill and solid scholarship. The writing is smooth and inviting, and ample detail makes this new book a choice for collateral course reading or as a research reference for students, as well as a good choice for the general non-fiction and biography fan. Included are a family tree, an extensive timeline, and essays by a variety of writers, including Gay Talese, Andrei Coudrescu, and Richard Norton Smith.

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