When Celebrity Picture Books Go Kuh-kuh-kuh-KRAZY!
Celebrity picture books. The gift that just keeps on giving.
Now in the past I’ve had my say about CPB ah-plenty. Heck, there was an entire chapter devoted to them in Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature. Today, we’ll switch tactics and tackle a topic that no one ever discusses.
Weeeeeeeeeeird celebrity picture books.
Specifically, the ones based on pop songs.
Here is how I imagine how the process usually goes.
Big publisher with lots of money sits down with the people of big famous celebrity singer. Big publishers offers to get a top notch illustrator (who really needs the cash) to illustrate it. Celebrity singer is keen on the idea, a deal is struck, and the book is made. This happens time and again and usually the results are very normal.
But then . . . once in a very great while . . . the impossible happens. The artist is allowed to be . . . artistic.
What do I mean like that? Okay. Let’s start with the pop novelty song turned picture book. And in keeping with the sheer number of foxes in picture books these days (Travis! You need to add the new version of The Dead Bird by Zolotow & Robinson to your list!) I am showing you this:
Remember that little post-Gangnam Style hit on the interwebs? Currently cresting at 616 million views on YouTube (nope, I’m not kidding) someone at Simon & Schuster decided it could be worth it to give the lyrics book form. After all, it sounds like a children’s song in a lot of ways (right down to the elephant going “toot”). And usually when a YouTube sensation gets turned into a picture book you get something like a Golden Book Grumpy Cat or a Tiny Hamster or a talking shell, and that’s fine.
Then there’s this:
I had to wonder how this happened. Did Ylvis insist on having his own illustrator? How did they get Norwegian artist Svein Nyhus in the first place? How could something this . . this . . this cool be based on a YouTube video? It was Debbie Ohi’s blog post My WHAT DOES THE FOX SAY? obsession, solving a mystery AND the new picture book from Simon & Schuster BFYR that answered all my questions. Turns out, Art Director Laurent Linn may have had a hand in the works. Makes sense. The man has fine taste.
And if you’re saying to yourself, “Fine and all, but clearly this is an aberration” you’d be half right. Certainly it would take an act of God for another Svein Nyhus picture book to appear on our shores (our Norwegian picture book illustrators available here in the States are a bit, uh, lacking, shall we say). But odd adaptations of songs into picture book formats don’t stop there. Consider this:
Yep. That’s a Sting song. Now note the name of the illustrator: Sven Völker. We’re with a German this time around. Of course, the interiors might have given that away . . .
I’m sorry but I kind of love this. Obviously the song isn’t really meant to be for kids, but at least they didn’t cutesy it up. It would have been easy to go the Shel Silverstein route and follow the adventures of a chipper little spot as he traverses the world. Instead we get . . . actually, I’m not sure what we get. Something weird, that’s for sure.
These first two books I’ve mentioned work because the publishers decided to get European artists to do the interiors. So how often do you find a song adaptation that’s a bit on the peculiar side and that’s illustrated by an American? Hardly ever. Of course there are some exceptions:
Dylan gets adapted into picture books on a frequent basis. And he usually gets some perfectly good artists like Paul Rogers or David Walker or Jim Arnosky (that one was a surprise). One time he got Jon J. Muth and I got really excited. But the art was pretty standard stuff. There was a paper airplane motif. Ho hum.
But Scott Campbell? He’s different. This guy has a whole life dedicated to his adult cartoons, which are delightful. Ever see this book?
If not, I think I’m helping you out with your holiday gift giving already. That book is a hoot.
In the case of the Dylan book, Campbell appears at first glance to be doing everything straight. Dogs are running free. That’s really all there is to it. But there’s this undercurrent that’s hard to ignore. See if you feel it too:
It just doesn’t feel like other celebrity song books. There’s a wildness reined in here. The song isn’t one of Dylan’s better ones, so there’s that as well, but at least the pictures are interesting to look at. The downside is that I haven’t seen Mr. Campbell do any picture books since this and Hug Machine. Boo-urns, sez I. More Campbell, please.
I welcome any other suggestions of odd song-adaptation picture books, though I know they’re not easy to come up with. A goodly chunk of them are dull as dishwater. Very straightforward. Artists doing something rote for a nice sized check. But if you do hear of a case where the artist was allowed to be, y’know, artistic, you just let me know. This is the kind of stuff I really dig. And if you can’t think of anything then just sit back and enjoy this fake picture book adaptation of David Bowie’s Major Tom.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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