November 21, 2007


Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope. By Jenna Bush. HarperTeen. $18.99.

Kids Are Americans Too. By Bill O’Reilly and Charles Flowers. William Morrow. $24.95.

      One way to judge the value to your family of a celebrity-written book is by simply imagining it to have been written by someone completely unknown. It’s possible that a celebrity’s name will get you to read about a subject you would not otherwise consider – and that may be a good thing – but when it comes to books that are trying to teach something or help families understand the world better, a celebrity byline is useless if the content is drivel. It often is – although not in these two books. True, the celebrity angle makes the books seem to be more than they are; neither is the last word on anything, and neither really breaks any new ground. But – case in point – in Ana’s Story by Jenna Bush, if the author’s name is what gets families to read the harrowing tale of an abused 17-year-old single mother who is HIV-positive, and then to do something to help the Anas of the world, the celebrity author will have done a great deal of good. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be the case. Several months after the book’s publication, when all the fanfare about the president’s daughter’s book tours (during which many questions had nothing to do with the book itself) has died down, we are left with a harrowing piece of nonfiction that, unfortunately, adds very little to the debate about HIV, poverty, and the scarcity of health resources in the poorer countries of the world. This is a short book – the pages number 290, but the margins are wide and many pages are half blank or filled with irrelevant photos – but an affecting one. The bickering relatives, uncaring judicial system and strong determination of Ana as a single mother add up to a story of woe and power. Unfortunately, it is more than a twice-told tale. Entrenched ruling elites, official corruption, indifference to the plight of the poor, lack of interest in or understanding of serious diseases, and diversion of resources (including foreign aid) to line the pockets of thuggish leaders are facts of life and death in countries throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia. The personal details of Ana’s life are well communicated by Jenna Bush, who writes in a simplistic style that should help the book reach out even to young readers. But there is no tidy ending here, as Bush herself points out; and there are no suggestions that are likely to prevent other stories like Ana’s from being written again and again by other well-meaning celebrity and non-celebrity authors, year after year after year.

      Bill O’Reilly, on the other hand, has suggestions galore. Kids Are Americans Too is the acerbic journalist’s take on the rights and responsibilities of children in the United States. With fewer than half the numbered pages of Jenna Bush’s book, it has far more actionable ideas and far more direct relevance to today’s children – but that is not to say that all readers (by a long shot) will agree with the ideas and suggestions here. O’Reilly and coauthor Charles Flowers are at their best in punchy descriptions of events that kids could justifiably think of as ancient history, such as the creation of the U.S. Constitution: “While they were Founding, the Fathers included brilliant thinkers, pains in the butt, more than one certifiable drunk, heroes who stood against the majority on principle, athletes (some of whom were skilled at chasing skirts), and speakers who could make the walls shake.” Kids Are Americans Too is also good at avoiding spoon-feeding information to young readers, encouraging them to learn things for themselves. For example, one 11-year-old who wants to go hunting with his father is told to look up the local laws that govern the subject in his state – and given a quick course in the difference between nationwide and local lawmaking. O’Reilly warns that “usually, you kids don’t win” in matters of individual vs. group rights, such as wearing a T-shirt with a political statement that offends someone else in your class. He tosses out quizzes with wonderful wrong answers: “Many laws that affect you are…about as sane as Simon Cowell’s comments on American Idol.” And he is up-front about his own attitudes: “I frequently rant and rail against court decisions that—IN MY VIEW—are ridiculous, dangerous, or just plain wrong. (Don’t get me started!)” The result is a wide-ranging but superficial look at various aspects of American law as they apply to kids. At one point, O’Reilly writes, “So where are we? Hard to say.” That is in reference to a specific situation, but it also applies to the book as a whole. There are well-made points here and bright writing throughout, but Kids Are Americans Too is scattered, trying too hard both to seem “with it” for young readers and to propound a specific view of constitutional and other legal issues. It’s a better jumping-off point for further discussion than guide to everyday life – although if it does lead to further discussion about legal and constitutional issues, it will have accomplished something worthwhile for the work of any author, celebrity or not.

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