What's inside Speaking Up, the postponed children's book about Sarah Palin.

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July 29 2010 9:58 AM

Was This Children's Book About Sarah Palin Unfit To Print?

We reveal what's inside the indefinitely postponed Speaking Up: The Sarah Palin Story.

Sarah Palin. Click image to expand.
Sarah Palin

The Christian publisher Zondervan announced the release of Speaking Up, a biography of Sarah Palin for young readers, earlier this month. It had been planned for fall publication. But just a week after the initial announcement, the publisher removed Speaking Up from its schedule and scrubbed the book from its Web site.

Ruth Graham Ruth Graham

Ruth Graham is a regular Slate contributor. She lives in New Hampshire.

Zondervan was cagey about its reasons for postponement. A publicist would only say that "After careful review and discussion, it was determined that October 2010 is not the optimal time for publishing this book." Author Kim Washburn, whose resume includes a stint editing a children's magazine for Focus on the Family, has said only that she was surprised by the decision. Now it's unclear if the book—part of an ongoing series of biographies of notable Christians that will also include pro-life football player Tim Tebow and Bono—will ever appear.

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What reason could Zondervan have for delaying the book's publication? Stories about Sarah Palin have proven to be extremely lucrative, so you'd think Zondervan would be eager to push the book out on schedule. Is there something inside Speaking Up that the Christian publisher has deemed objectionable? I consulted the advance copy that Zondervan sent me to find out.

Speaking Up is an "unauthorized" biography in that Washburn did not have direct access to Palin. End notes indicate she drew largely from the former Alaska governor's 2009 memoir Going Rogue, along with other sources including the Washington Post, the Anchorage Daily News, and postings on right-wing Web sites, including freerepublic.com. But "unauthorized" does not necessarily mean unwelcome: The relentlessly reverential book is not modeled after Kitty Kelley's takedowns but rather on those quickie tween biographies of Justin Bieber and Zac Efron churned out for adoring fans. It is a stronger reputation-burnisher for Sarah Palin than Going Rogue was.

In Washburn's telling, Palin's sore subjects are either not mentioned by name or avoided completely. Katie Couric is called only a "well-known journalist" who "came up with a broadcast that emphasized one viewpoint, and it wasn't a good one." Vanity Fair, which published a critical post-mortem on the McCain campaign, is called a "widely read gossip magazine." Palin's 2002 loss in the race for Alaska lieutenant governor is chalked up to the fact that "during this run for office, her passion was surprisingly thin"—in other words, she never wanted to win that stupid election anyway. Bristol's unexpected pregnancy is not mentioned at all; a Zondervan acquisitions editor told the AP that,"We tried to stay away from the super-heavy stuff."

Viewed forgivingly, Speaking Up is a laudable effort—a biography of a woman for a young evangelical audience that focuses primarily on its subject's professional accomplishments. Viewed less forgivingly, it's a hilarious one. At one point, within the space of three paragraphs, Palin is compared favorably to Taylor Swift, the apostle Paul, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver—in that order. (It's a rare passage that can make evangelicals, music fans, sports nuts, and policy wonks all cry "blasphemy.") The book brags about such minutiae as Palin's number of Twitter followers, and it's larded with sentences like, "Ever impressed with her partner—his ideas, his bravery, his service to the country—Sarah smiled at John McCain and fondly embraced him with sincere appreciation."

Just as many critics and journalists pointed out that Going Rogue had some glaring inaccuracies, Speaking Up also plays loosely with the facts. It includes Palin's preferred accounts of selling the Alaska governor's jet (at a loss to the state, as it turned out) and of stepping down halfway through her term as governor. Washburn writes that the "teleprompter failed" during Palin's 2008 convention speech, an account that has long been debunked. Her account of Palin's controversial firing of the head of a Wasilla museum is drawn entirely from a Web site called conservatives4palin.com. She writes that Barack Obama received 51 percent of the popular vote based on information on the wiki site Answers.com; the actual tally was 53 percent.

Since the explanation for Speaking Up's postponement can't be found among its glowing descriptions of Palin, why is publisher Zondervan keeping it off the market?

It's probably not Zondervan's relationship with Palin herself. Zondervan is a division of Going Rogue publisher HarperCollins, so despite the fact that Washburn didn't interview Palin for the book, the publisher presumably had, at least at one time, a positive connection with its subject. Zondervan published a Palin biography for adults in October of 2008. It was widely reported last year that Zondervan would publish a special Christian edition of Going Rogue, but in the end, the Michigan-based publisher only co-distributed the original HarperCollins book to Christian retail outlets.

Publishing industry observers offered many theories on the postponement. Ron Hogan, the former director of e-marketing strategy for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and founder of the influential literary blog Beatrice.com, suggested that it might simply be a scheduling conflict. Palin's own book, America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag—an anthology of her favorite readings, including "great speeches, sermons, letters, literature and poetry, biography, and even some of her favorite songs and movies"—is due out from HarperCollins in November. "My best guess is that somebody decided it was a bad move to have anything out ahead of Sarah Palin's own book that could possibly cannibalize sales," Hogan speculated.

But a publicist for HarperCollins said that the decision was Zondervan's. And others don't think this theory holds water. "I can't see a children's biography having any impact on sales of a book for adults," said Dara LaPorte, manager of the children and teens department at Politics and Prose, a well-known independent bookstore in Washington, D.C. "If anything I would think it would interest parents." LaPorte said children's biographies of President Obama, his wife, and their family were all strong sellers at her store.

Like Palin herself, the postponement seems to invite conspiracy theories. "It could be something political," mused Carolyn Kellogg, who writes about books and publishing at the L.A. Times. Perhaps Palin is about to announce she's running for office, so that by October, "she won't be just a Fox News commentator," Kellogg speculated. Bethanne Patrick, a consultant and editor of the WETA Book Studio who has blogged as "The Book Maven" for AOL and Publisher's Weekly, smells something fishy, too. "This just seems that it had to have been postponed because of Levi and Bristol," she said. "It seems like they wanted it to be held until the 'happy couple' was firmly established with going ahead with the wedding." But the Palin clan's dramas are constantly in flux; it seems unlikely such details could really delay the book.

In the end, perhaps the book's postponement can be seen as a fitting reflection of Palin, who stepped down as governor of Alaska almost exactly a year ago today: Speaking Up has a glossy cover and bewildering content, its plans changed suddenly without explanation, and no one should be surprised if it resurfaces sometime before 2012.

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