Everything about this book was impossible.
In 2008, I was going along, minding my own business, writing my books and sweating the latest deadline. I’d instructed my agent to restrain herself from offering me any new projects. My plate was full, and my cup had long since runneth over. “No problem,” she said. “I understand.” Then, barely two weeks later, she sent me the email: “I know you’re busy,” it began, “and I know you said you didn’t want to consider any new projects, but I really think you should scroll down and read this email from Simon & Schuster.” Breathing heavily, and letting fly a few words I can’t repeat here, I scrolled down the page. It was a letter from Justin Chandra asking if I’d consider writing a picture book biography of then-Senator Barack Obama who, as it happened, was running for the Democratic nomination for president.
If you think I jumped at the chance, you’d lose the bet. I didn’t know much about Mr. Obama. (That’s a strange name, I thought.) And I’m not particularly interested in politics. I did, however, realize the offer was substantial, and that I should at least appear to be giving it serious consideration. With that in mind, I decided to wait two weeks before turning it down.
During that two months, I did a little research on Senator Obama, and noticed that there seemed to be a growing degree of excitement about him. And it began to dawn o me that a book about him would probably be a high profile project. In other words, this could potentially be a very big book. What were the odds, I wondered, that I would ever again be offered such a high profile project? Not very good, I decided, and so I called my agent and said, “Let’s go for it.”
I had no idea what I was in for.
Simon & Schuster had set their book release to coincide with the Democratic National Convention in August. Counting back from that date, and considering the least amount of time illustrator Bryan Collier would need to complete the artwork, I had roughly three weeks to research and turn around a polished first draft. I’ve written biographies and works of historical fiction before, and I can tell you I usually spend months just doing the research.
Job number one became not to panic! As it happened, a friend had recently mentioned having a love for research, so I gave her a call and put her to work culling material for me to pour over. She sent me articles, book titles, and various interviews with Obama. I felt like I was back at college, cramming for an exam only, this time, the results would be read by thousands of people, not just my professor!
This project was unusual in another respect. Writing in a normal time-frame, I would consider several possible approaches to telling the story, and I’d try a couple until I figured out which approach worked best. In this case, however, there was no time for that. I had to come up with an idea and just run with it, hoping it was the right one.
The publisher wanted this book to capture some of the energy of the race for the nomination, as well as tell the back-story of Obama’s life and what led him to decide to run for president. That meant the book needed to be both informative and engaging. But how do you engage the littlest readers in a book about a political leader? I decided to view this story though the eyes of a young child, and to incorporate that point-of-view throughout the text. That way, even the youngest readers would have a character with whom they could relate. It felt like a bit of a gamble, but I believed it could work, so I went with it.
I experienced the tyranny of the clock during every step of this project. I knew how extremely challenging it would be for Bryan to create the art for this text, given the insane schedule, so to give him a leg up, I started secretly funneling him pages, so that he could get going on his own research for artistic reference. My editor would probably have had a cow, if she’d known.
At three weeks, I sent off my first draft, then spent the next month or so in revisions. Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope released the day before the DNC. Bryan and I were in attendance to sign copies of the book.
What a rush!
I wasn’t quite done with the book after its release, though. Once Obama was nominated, I had to update the Author’s Note. When he was elected, I had to update it yet again. When he won the Noble Prize, it was updated. And once he began campaigning for a second term—you get the picture!
Three years after it reached #1 on the New York Times Bestsellers list, a special edition, with a CD of me reading the book, was released. And the book that proved to be a challenge with a capitol C is still going strong. And to think: I almost turned this project down.