Barack Obama

Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of HopeYou know how I’m always say­ing I’m up for a chal­lenge? Well, with this book, God called me on it.

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.

Bryan Collier and Nikki GrimesSimon & 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.


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