Children’s book publishing continues to be inspired by the inauguration of President Joe Biden on January 20, 2021. Later this month, Penguin Young Readers’ Philomel imprint is crashing a picture book that came about because Biden recited the lyrics of a song written in 1998 during his inaugural address, introducing it by explaining that the “next chapter in the America story” might sound like one verse in “a song that means a lot to me.” He then recited the words:
“The work and prayers
have brought us to this day
What shall be our legacy?
What will our children say?
Let me know in my heart
When my days are through
I gave my best to you.”
American Anthem, a picture book with the same title as the song that Biden referenced in his speech, by songwriter and librettist Gene Scheer, will be published on June 29; Scheer’s lyrics are illustrated by 13 visual artists from a variety of backgrounds, each depicting through images what America means to them: Jacqueline Alcantara, Christine Almeda, Fahmida Azim, Elizabeth Baddeley, Matt Faulkner, Veronica Jamison, London Ladd, Michelle Lee, Rafael López, Laura McGee Kvasnosky with Kate Harvey McGee, James McMullan, and Edel Rodriguez.
Philomel associate publisher Jill Santopolo, who was on maternity leave during the inauguration, recalled being moved by the power of Scheer’s lyrics. Noting that she was texting during the inauguration ceremony with Philomel publisher Ken Wright and Penguin Young Readers president Jen Loja, Santopolo said, “When President Biden started speaking and recited these lyrics, I texted Jen and Ken and said this should be a picture book. I think Ken is the one who wrote me back and said, ‘You are on maternity leave,’ and I texted back, ‘I don’t care, I need to make this picture book.’ And he said, ‘Tell me more, what’s your vision for it?’ ”
Santopolo explained, “I thought about the history in my family and in my husband’s family. My grandfather’s father came here from Italy, he’d not been educated at all, he was a shoemaker. His son ended up with a PhD, and worked as a superintendent in schools helping to raise children up through education to find better lives. My husband’s family came from Eastern Europe because they were religiously persecuted. His father ended up participating in the civil rights movement because he thought everyone should be free to pursue their lives how they want to. That tradition in America of raising other people up is a very special one, and it’s one that I wanted this book to capture.”
Her reflections upon her husband’s and her family’s different life trajectories after immigrating to the U.S. prompted Santopolo to envision a different illustrator for every page spread, who could create an image “that expresses their own feeling, and their own family’s feeling about America, so that we can encapsulate in this book the diversity of this country.”
Selecting the illustrators was a group decision, she explained. “We all put our heads together and thought about people we worked with, people we would love to work with, and people whose art styles would work together.”
Laughing at the thought that her colleagues may have thought that she “was bananas” for wanting to take the lead in producing a picture book during her maternity leave—in the midst of the pandemic, no less—Santopolo said that despite the obstacles, “It was a book that I felt I had to do, especially with a baby at home. I want her to see the positive pieces about America. There’s a lot we need to work on in this country, but there’s also some wonderful things too. I think that this book celebrates that.”
Songwriter Was “Gobsmacked”
Scheer told PW that he had no clue that Biden would recite on his inauguration day the lyrics to a song that Scheer had written more than 20 years before. Scheer wrote American Anthem after reading in 1998 the book Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen, an account of how the U.S. Constitution came to be written by the men known to history as the Founding Fathers.
“I was watching television, with my computer in my lap, pretending to work, but really watching the inauguration,” Scheer said. “I thought he was doing a good job with the speech, and then lo and behold, he starts reciting the lyrics of my song, and said it meant so much to him. I just could not believe it; I was gobsmacked.”
“It was a very surreal experience,” he added. “My phone exploded. All my friends and family were trying to contact me to congratulate me and to just share in the moment.”
Reflecting on how words he’d written were used as a kicker to a presidential inauguration speech, Scheer noted, “Biden’s values are the values that I share, and that I was trying to advance when I wrote the song. The notion of collective responsibility that I think is at the core of Biden’s efforts at the moment are woven into the fabric of the song. I think that’s why he responded to it—because it seems to align with how he sees the world, in terms of how we all share responsibility for one another.”
Scheer praised the book for being a “beautiful visual tapestry of the American story,” and reserved special praise for the illustrations for “weaving different viewpoints, different stories together—which is kind of what I was doing with the song when I wrote it. Having these 13 diverse people, each with a different story to tell, create an illustration, was a great idea.”
The book also contains a lead sheet Scheer said he’d prepared that contained the music notations for those who want to perform the song themselves, “with their kids as well.”
American Anthem has been performed by opera star Denyce Graves in front of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Graves also sang the song at the memorial service in the U.S. Capitol rotunda for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A version of the song, sung by Norah Jones, was featured in Ken Burns’s 2007 PBS documentary on World War II, The War.
The book’s publication date is no accident: it was timed to land in bookstores a few days before the Fourth of July holiday celebrating our nation’s founding in Philadelphia 245 years ago.