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Source: Phil Nel, 785-532-2165, philnel@k-state.edu
http://www.k-state.edu/media/mediaguide/bios/nelbio.html
Photo available. Contact media@k-state.edu or 785-532-6415.
News release prepared by: Katie Mayes, 785-532-6415, kmayes@k-state.edu

Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009

K-STATE EXPERT STUDIES OBAMA IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE

MANHATTAN -- Given the media blitz surrounding the last U.S. presidential campaign and that book authors are often inspired by the world around them, it's no wonder the market for children's literature has seen its share of books about the new president, according to a Kansas State University children's literature expert.

But the number of titles about Barack Obama is astounding, said Phil Nel, K-State professor of English and head of K-State's children's literature program.

Nel recently presented the paper "Obamafiction for Children: Imagining the 44th U.S. President" at the American Studies Association conference in Washington, D.C.

Last he counted, Nel said there were around 60 children's titles about Obama -- including two dozen before he was elected to the presidency and more than 35 since. The total does not include books about members of the Obama family or Bo, the family dog.

"For those unfamiliar with the American book market, to have this many children's books about a candidate or a president so soon in his term of office is rather unusual," Nel said. "After eight years in office, George W. Bush inspired 17 fewer titles than Obama."

Nel's research on Obama and children's literature 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.

What's interesting about the books, Nel said, is their portrayal of the 44th U.S. president as a hero, bridge builder and uniter.

Like in many books about African-Americans in history, Obama is traditionally depicted as beating all odds to succeed, but Nel said this has had the undesired effect of obscuring Obama's racial identity.

"Both books suggest that by embracing his biracial background, Obama is able to transcend race -- an idea that is simultaneously problematic and accurate," Nel said. "In both, Obama is a bridge holding together diverse categories, somehow able to rise above politics and unite an array of people."

The idealism with which Obama is portrayed is compelling because is seems to reinforce the idea that with his election, America has moved beyond race, Nel said. In reality, however, Obama's election is not as uniting as some have let on, he said.

"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."

At K-State, Nel teaches a course on radical children's literature that examines the role of politics in children's books. He also is the co-author of "Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children's Literature," which was published in November 2009 by New York University Press. The book is a collection of more than 40 stories, poems, comic strips and other pieces of literature that encourage children to question those in authority. The book includes both familiar and unfamiliar authors, and a variety of political messages reflecting the concerns of 20th-century leftist movements like peace, civil rights and gender equality.

Nel also has published books on the works of Dr. Seuss and J.K. Rowling.