If American children do not know that President Barack Obama is a hero, bridge-builder and uniter of people it is not the fault of the publishing industry.
Phil Nel, a professor of English at Kansas State University and head of the children’s literature programme there, has counted around 60 children books about Barack Obama, including two dozen before he was elected to the presidency and more than 35 since.
This number, he says, is astounding, especially since it does not include books about the Obama family or Bo, their dog. By the end of his eight years in office George Bush had scored only 43 children’s titles (and an unknown number about his dog). Nel calls the trend “Obamafiction for children”.
His research on the phenomenon focuses on two books, Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope by Nikki Grimes and Brian Collier, and Barack by Jonah Winter and A.G. Ford. They portray the 44th U.S. president as a hero, bridge builder and uniter, beating all odds to succeed, says Nel. But he adds that this portrayal has had the undesired effect of obscuring Obama’s racial identity, and suggests that America has moved beyond race, which it has not.
“Obama received a minority — 43 percent — of the white vote, 62 percent of the Asian vote, 67 percent of the Hispanic vote, as well as a hyper-majority — 95 percent — of the African-American vote,” Nel said. “These results hardly signify the irrelevance of race.”
Well, some people will say that children’s books have always had some kind of bias. When I was about 13 I had a textbook called The March of Civilisation, which was blatantly biased towards modernity and against the Stone Age.
Prof Nel has made a collection of those reflecting the concerns of 20th-century leftist movements like peace, civil rights and gender equality. He has collected 40 examples (including poems and comic strips) under the title, Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature, published this month.
A handy sort of book for the study, perhaps.
Nel has also published books on the works of Dr Seuss and J K Rowling, although I do not know whether he has found anything politically sinister (in the literal sense) in them.