With the September 26 release of Sweet Land of Liberty, Newt Gingrich's wife, Callista Gingrich, will join the growing ranks of political family members who have penned picture books for children.
In her nonfiction story, illustrated by Susan Arciero, the narrator—an elementary school–age elephant named Ellie, after Ellis Island—travels back in time. "He takes our young readers through about a dozen different stories that are pivotal in American history," said Marji Ross, publisher of conservative Regnery Publishing, "such as the Boston Tea Party and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon." He also sits in the back of a covered wagon, eats at the first Thanksgiving dinner, and accompanies the Wright brothers on their flight and George Washington on the crossing of the Delaware.
According to Ross, "The idea was to tell these stories kids don't know about and connect these seminal moments in American history with some of the really basic things, whether they're freedom of speech or the spirit of innovation or individual rights—these basic principles of democracies."
Sweet Land of Liberty comes on the heels of other bestselling children's books by politicians and their family members. HarperCollins scored big with Laura and Jenna Bush's Read All About It! (2008), with 165,000 copies in print. Simon & Schuster's hits include Lynne Cheney's Our 50 States (2006), Meghan McCain's My Dad, John McCain (2008), and Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope by Nikki Grimes and Bryan Collier. And Knopf had a bestseller with Barack Obama’s Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters (2010).
Simon & Schuster spokesman Paul Crichton said the publisher printed nearly 300,000 copies of Our 50 States. Knopf has 500,000 copies in print of Of Thee I Sing, according to publicity director Noreen Herits. Regnery is tentatively planning on an initial print run of 50,000 for Callista Gingrich's debut effort.
Like other children's titles by celebrities such as Madonna and Jerry Seinfeld, the books by politicians and their family members are often met with lukewarm reviews. "It helps if they can write," said Antonia Squire, general manager and children's buyer for Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, Calif. "If the book is good, as Lynne Cheney's were, they sell very nicely."
The political leanings of a region make a difference, too. "Bear in mind that in the Silicon Valley, if Michelle Obama were to write a book, it would sell a lot better than Mrs. Gingrich's book," said Squire. "Caroline Kennedy always does well for us." (Disney is publishing her new book in 2012.)
Literary "stars" in this genre, such as Cheney and Barack Obama, are rare. "It seems to be about the quality of the book," said Melissa Posten, who runs the children's department at Pudd'nHead Books in Webster Groves, Mo. "They're just not very good." As a result, the books often sell poorly, she said. "It doesn't matter whether it's a Democrat or a Republican."
Logically, books by political family members often touch on politics—a tough sell with picture book–age kids. "Politics isn't a subject that young children naturally wrap their minds around," said Kenny Brechner, owner of DDG Booksellers in Farmington, Maine. "There's a reason children don't vote until they're 18." Still, Obama's book sold briskly in his store. "That was a little different," he said. "It was a book that was very much written for children—kind of a shocker in this genre."
Sweet Land of Liberty, which is aimed at kids ages six through eight, is a "precursor" to a new line of children's books—called Little Patriot Press—that Regnery plans to launch in 2012 with four to six new titles a year, Ross said. For this project, Regnery is working with Fox Business Network senior correspondent Peter Barnes and his wife, Cheryl Shaw Barnes, who co-wrote Woodrow, the White House Mouse and House Mouse, Senate Mouse.
Regnery will repackage some of the Barneses' existing books and will then work with the couple on new books. Cheryl Barnes will be a creative consultant to help Regnery find other authors for the Little Patriot Press line.
Callista Gingrich's debut as an author traces to a meeting she attended with her husband (the former Speaker of the House and a 2012 presidential candidate) and Regnery Publishing. They were talking about his June 13 adult release, A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters. "We were having a broad conversation about how pervasive it is in the country that people don't understand what American exceptionalism is any more in this country," said Ross.
Then the light-bulb moment occurred. "Wouldn't it be fun if almost as a companion book or follow-up book, Callista were to write a book for kids?" said Ross. "She'd never done one before. She fell in love with the idea." After all, Callista Gingrich—who was unavailable for comment—sings and plays the French horn. "She's a talented musician," said Ross. "She does have a little bit of a background in performing. That always helps with an author."
What's more, Callista Gingrich and her husband have made numerous documentaries together. "She has an eye for detail. She has a good ability to tell the story," said Ross. "The performer background and the movie background we thought might fit well with the kind of drama and storytelling you need for children."
Regnery and Callista Gingrich have not yet made specific plans for her book tour but plan to do so. "She's very excited to promote it," said Ross. "She's very interested in doing book readings in bookstores and in classrooms."
But Sweet Land of Liberty illustrator Arciero, who also created the art for the Barneses' Martha's Vineyard and Nat, Nat, the Nantucket Cat Goes to the Beach, among others, was happy to explain how she is painting the pictures for Callista Gingrich's title—her first political-wife book. So far the Pinehurst, N.C.–based artist has finished the cover and about half of the 12 illustrations, which will each span two pages. She's leaving a space for the text, which she has not yet seen.
Arciero also has not talked with or exchanged e-mails with Callista Gingrich. Instead, she works directly with Regnery art director Amanda Larsen, who sends her the Gringrich team's basic premise for each image. "They laid it all out for me," said Arciero, who hopes that the "whimsical" drawings and Callista Gingrich's story will "inspire kids" to take a deeper look at history.
Regnery first contacted Arciero on March 15, and the illustrations got rolling in early April. All the art is due August 1. "It's been a neat project for me," says Arciero, who enjoys doing the historical research. Callista Gingrich came up with the idea for Ellie the elephant. Then Arciero added a sidekick: a smiling bald eagle who is a Where's Waldo?–like extra for kids to find in each illustration, including the cover. "There will be a lot of things to look at," says Arciero. "It should be really darling."