The Obamas' appearance on Chicago Public Library's series "Live From the Library" doubled as the reveal of a new branch of the library that will be housed at the Obama Presidential Center.

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
Updated May 15, 2020
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A mockup of a future library at the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago
The Obama Foundation

Of course the little boy in the story had big ears.

"Mine are a little bigger," admitted Barack Obama.

"A lot bigger," corrected Michelle Obama.

The former president and first lady, social distancing at their home in Washington, D.C, teamed up Thursday to read aloud — over social media — the illustrated children's book  The Word Collector by Peter H. Reynolds about a boy named Jerome who collects his favorite words.

The latest in the Chicago Public Library's online series "Live From the Library," a daily story time for kids hosted by prominent Chicago natives, the Obamas' joint appearance doubled as the announcement of a new branch of the city library to be housed on the future South Side campus of the Obama Presidential Center.

Calling public libraries "essential institutions," the former president, 58, said he hopes the new branch will be a destination for families when it opens.

"I remember my first trip to the library and how important I felt. My library card was a key that unlocked a world of knowledge and experiences," said Mrs. Obama, 56, who grew up just a mile or two from the site of the future campus in Chicago.

The entire project, as is customary for former presidents, is in the final stages of a federal review process after which construction will begin, says a spokesperson.

"We're excited for you to visit one day," President Obama told their online audience.

That news nugget aside, the story time was a peek inside the Obamas' home library — with surprisingly bare bookshelves for a couple known as voracious readers — where, for weeks, they've been doing the voluntary isolation thing just like millions of other Americans.

(Also like millions of other Americans, he complained recently that the lack of sports on TV during the novel coronavirus pandemic was "driving me nuts." She has said that, aside from sharing Wi-Fi with daughters Malia and Sasha as they finish out the semester's college classes remotely, "we also got a little Netflix and chilling happening.")

It was Mrs. Obama — a Grammy Award winner in January for best spoken word album, for the audiobook of her bestselling memoir, Becoming — who got more theatrically into the short reading. (If she noticed that her husband mispronounced "motif" as moh-tiff instead of moh-teef, she diplomatically did not let on.)

On the page where little Jerome discovers "multi-syllable words that sounded like songs," the former first lady put a little spice into her pronunciation of "guacamole" and a little reggae, with a side of shoulder shimmy, into "kaleidoscope" while her husband nodded along with raised eyebrows.

(President Obama has two Grammys of his own, for the audio recordings of his first two memoirs in 2005 and 2007.)

Thursday's video was also a fresh taste of the former first couple's once-familiar repartee. The book they chose "illustrates the transformative power of words," the former president said. "I love words."

To which his wife replied dryly, "Yeah. Your favorite."

"He's the word guy."

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