Obama portrayed in books

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The president’s influence on the country is evident. However, besides legislation and international policy President Barack Obama is also affecting another area — children’s books.

Philip Nel, professor in English and director of K-State’s program in Children’s Literature, presented the idea in a lecture titled “Obamafiction.” Books carry hope for youth and create a hero for children in the U.S.

Nel said children’s books were inspired by Obama’s political breakthroughs, created to encourage reader identification with him and to provide support for him.

“To write this piece, I pursued four main areas of inquiry,” Nel said. “I read some of the 57 children’s books about Obama — all of the picture books and comic books, plus a few of the others. I also did some work to situate my argument within the fields of children’s literature in general, and African-American children’s literature in particular.”

Children’s literature is the most important literature because people read it before their ideas about the world are fully formed, Nel said.

“These are the books we read while we’re deciding what we believe and who we we want to become,” he added. “For these reasons and others, children’s literature is inherently political.”

Literature reinforces children’s ideas about how the world is or how it should be, he said, whether it is challenging or supporting the status quo.

Rachelle Doan, masters student in children’s literature, said she thinks Nel did particularly good job of highlighting the Obama phenomenon in children’s literature.

“It pointed out the fact that whether his presidency goes well or not, he is already being portrayed as a hero like we did Lincoln and Washington,” she said.

Doan said that Nel did a very good job of discussing both the pros and the cons for how Obama is being portrayed in these books.

“To examine how these Obama biographies attempt to fit this U.S. president into dominant national myths, this paper focuses primarily on visual representations, picture books and comic books,” Nel said.

Nel emphasized 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.”

He chose these books to be his focus because were the first picture books published and are the most popular children’s books about Obama. They are also backed up by major publishing houses, he said.

Supply and demand for these kinds of books plays a role, Nel said. The U.S. tends to idealize the president as a hero and a role model, blurring the line between actuality and what people want. Surprisingly, few of these books were created for former president George W. Bush, he said.

“The idea that America has resolved its racial troubles and that you can be anything you want to be if you just try hard enough was the recurring theme for most of the books,” Nel said. “Literature has a powerful influence on young minds.”

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