Among the slew of articles and books written about Barack Obama over the last year, one of the most surprisingly controversial entries is a children’s book — Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope, by poet Nikki Grimes and artist Bryan Collier. The book was released last summer and quickly landed on the bestseller list. But with that success also came criticism, as many readers and reviewers characterized the tome as hagiography and political propaganda. According to Grimes, who says she knew very little about Obama before writing the book, hero worship and politics were the furthest things from her mind.
Grimes, a recipient of the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, has written many books of poetry and fiction, including Come Sunday, What Is Goodbye?, and the popular Danitra Brown series. Based in Southern California, Grimes spoke to UrbanFaith just before jetting east for the presidential inauguration.
URBANFAITH: How did you get involved with this project?
NIKKI GRIMES: Simon & Schuster approached me in December 2007 about writing a picture book biography of Barack Obama. I was already crazy-busy with other projects, so I groaned when my agent told me. After deliberating for 48 hours, I said yes. I realized I would have the opportunity to introduce young readers to a rising star in American culture, one who had already made history.
Once you signed on, you had a very short time to complete the book, right?
Yes. If I was to finish the manuscript in time for the illustrator to do his work, I literally would need to write the thing in under three weeks. Most of my picture books take from three to six months, on average. That gives me plenty of time to try out various ways of writing the story. In the case of Son of Promise, I had to go with the first concept that came into my head. Thank God, it worked out.
How did you research the book?
Believe it or not, I knew virtually nothing about Barack Obama at the outset. So I had no idea what kind of ride I was in for.
You knew nothing about him?
I was aware of his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, though I had not heard it myself. I prepared by reading his books, speeches, and essays, as well as books and articles written about him. I listened to audio clips online, studied quotes, and so forth. There was a great deal of material about him to be found, though nothing was more revealing about his childhood than his own memoir, Dreams from My Father. And, since I was writing a book for children, details of his childhood were the most important.
The artwork in the book is beautiful. What was it like collaborating with the illustrator, Bryan Collier?
Authors and illustrators don’t directly work together on children’s books. The author typically provides the text, and the illustrator both interprets that text and brings subtext to the work, if he’s good at his job–and Bryan Collier is one of the best.
The book was released in August 2008 and quickly became a New York Times bestseller. Did that surprise you?
It blew me away, actually. I had hoped for the book’s success, of course, as I do with all my books. But this was not expected.
You began writing the book at a time when it wasn’t clear whether Barack Obama would become president or even win the Democratic nomination. Did you have a sense that he would win?
Truly, I had no idea that he would even win the nomination, let alone be elected president. I got caught up in the excitement of his run along with everybody else. When I was working on the book, though, I understood that he was one to watch in the political arena, and that he had already broken ground in a significant way. The publisher believed, and I agreed, that however the election evolved, Barack Obama had already made history and that was worth recording in the form of a book for young readers.
Did you ever worry that the book would be perceived as too controversial or as political propaganda?
Frankly, it never occurred to me that a children’s book would become a political football! But it did.
Some critics have ridiculed the title of your book as further evidence of how people have turned Barack Obama into a messianic figure. How do you respond to those types of critiques, and did you ever think the title sounded too hagiographic or over the top?
First of all, I’m well aware that Jesus was the one and only Messiah, so that is not my issue. I am a poet. The title came to me in a moment of inspiration, and I liked the lilt of it, the sound of it. So, I went with it. It’s not that complicated.
It seems to me that the only critics who have an issue with the book, or the title, are political detractors and critics of adult literature. Most of them don’t even get children’s literature. The mandate from the publisher was to write a children’s book biography for very young readers, to make it inspirational, and to try to capture the energy and essence of Barack Obama’s campaign, and that is what I tried to do.
It was not my job to write some hyper-critical study of the man, or to flaunt whatever frailties he might have. That approach is not age-appropriate for five-year-olds! In an earlier draft, for example, I alluded to the period in his life when he experimented with marijuana, but the editors felt that this was inappropriate content for the intended age group, and I had to agree.
As you did your research, was there anything about Barack Obama’s faith or relationship with the church that jumped out at you?
I’m not going to comment on his faith, but as believers we should all be intent on covering him with prayer. We should pray for his family, and we should pray that they will find the spiritual covering that they need to sustain them as they settle into a new home, and a new life in the White House with all the attendant pressures.
What have you heard from your readers about the book?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. I think what is most important is that the book is allowing young readers to engage with this historical event in a way that resonates with them.
Do you know whether the Obamas have seen the book?
Bryan Collier and I signed a copy to their daughters. I sent it to Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, so I assume she got it. I don’t know what President Obama thought of it, but he did sign off on it being autographed and sold at the DNC in Denver, so I assume he approved!