Bob Dylan and Will Smith: Children’s Authors?
By: Nell Beram
Kids too young to read generally have their books selected for them by adults, and we tend to gravitate toward favorite characters from our childhoods, which often means our parents’ childhoods: Madeline, Babar, Curious George and the rest of the time-tested gang. But where can a book-buying relative — a boomer who’s nostalgic for his younger days, say — turn when Sophia and Jackson already own all the classics?
One solution publishers are offering with a perhaps inevitable regularity, given our increasingly cross-merchandised world, is picture books retrofitted with popular song lyrics. I stumbled upon my first in 2003: Across Christopher Canyon’s sun-blasted illustrations of a child playing outdoors loped the words to John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders” (“Sunshine on the water looks so lovely / Sunshine almost always makes me high”). I did a little research and learned that “Sunshine” was no pioneer: Way back in 1992, Scholastic set Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” to Alan Baker’s butterfly-festooned illustrations. The hits, as they say, have just kept coming, although expecting a good song to make a good book is about as logical as expecting a good book to have a danceable backbeat.
It might seem a natural partnership, the pop song and the picture book: A typical pop song’s lyrics are roughly the same length as a picture book’s text, repetition is frequently a feature of both, and it’s easy to include a score or even a CD with a book. There are now dozens of kids’ picture books built by pop, and Bob Dylan claims authorship of at least five, two of them “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” (different presses, different illustrators). Publishers have also double-dipped into Elvis Presley’s hit “Love Me Tender,” and the result is two divergent spins on the lyrics: One book has paintings by Tom Browning devoted to a father-daughter pair, while the other, out last year, offers Stephanie Graegin’s mixed-media illustrations of diverse straight and gay couples with their kids. Using art to transform a romantic-love song into a familial-love song is definitely a picture-book thing, but it can be an unsettling thing, as when the dog parent in Dylan’s “If Not for You,” endearingly illustrated by David Walker, keeps calling its puppy child “babe.”
Misfires like these are among the reasons I find myself looking at the lyrics-as-picture-book-text phenomenon with squinty eyes. Sometimes there’s an unavoidable whiff of opportunism in the air. I hate to put the coal-like words “vanity project” in the stocking of Mariah Carey, whose reliable holiday earworm “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has gotten the picture-book treatment, but the illustrator’s name doesn’t even appear on the book’s cover. (In case you own the book and a Sharpie: It’s Colleen Madden.) And the fact that publishers are turning to song lyrics raises a dispiriting question: Are they catering to nostalgic parents’ interests, or are they running out of fresh concepts for picture books? Is this comparable to the current television-reboot rampage, which signifies what the TV writer Nell Scovell has called “the golden age of no new ideas”?
There is also the possibility that using lyrics as text reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how a picture book works. Like a song, a picture book is meant to be heard. Still, although a reader may happen to know the featured song, it’s only fair to expect the book to succeed, its text to flow, for someone who doesn’t. I’m familiar with Dylan’s glorious “If Not for You,” so I know to add a beat to “nowhere” in the line “Without your love I’d be nowhere at all” when I’m reading it on paper; otherwise I might be at sea, rhythm-wise, with the corresponding page’s parent-child doggy sailing duo.
While a song’s repetitive elements may seem suited to picture books, they can also present problems. Some lyrics are pure poetry, but a poem seldom has a chorus — the thing that listeners eagerly anticipate but that, should it become tic-like, readers may wish they could fast-forward over. The adorable, near-pocket-size “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” last holiday season’s repackaging of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David charmer, with exuberant art by Mary Kate McDevitt, uses the line “What the world needs now is love, sweet love” seven times in 24 pages of text. That’s too much love, babe.
Only occasionally does a pop song seem to have been born to be a picture book. If Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash,” illustrated with fittingly toothless spookiness by David Catrow, is the most successful lyrics-to-text transfer I’ve come across, it’s because Pickett wrote the words with a schlockmeister’s soul and a percussionist’s ear.
I decided to make a test case out of Will Smith’s “Just the Two of Us.” I didn’t know the song, but when I read it aloud I didn’t sound like a babbling idiot. It turns out that Smith wrote his valentine to fatherhood with rhythm in mind — in the song, the words are spoken in sync with a beat — so “Just the Two of Us” is a decent choice for a read-aloud experience. Of course, any song-lyrics picture book would do well to tap Kadir Nelson, who is always in tune with whatever he’s illustrating; see, for one, the image in “Just the Two of Us” of the father with hands poised to catch his son as they’re walking alongside a mildly foreboding cityscape at dusk (“So if the world attacks, and you slide off track / Remember one fact, I’ve got your back”).
Naturally, publishers aren’t just picking any old hit that spreads the gospel of love; they’re looking for songs by artists wholesome enough to have their names stamped on a product directed at kids. Having said that, the White Stripes’ “We’re Going to Be Friends,” repurposed as a picture book last year, with nifty red, black and white retro art by Elinor Blake, proved that even a rock act with a dark side can write lyrics fit for a kid (“Walk with me, Suzy Lee / Through the park and by the tree / We will rest upon the ground / And look at all the bugs we found”). Might Sophia and Jackson be ready for a little Guns N’ Roses? The lyrics to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” are squeaky-clean, they could be marketed as a kid’s ode to his or her mom, and they scan beautifully on the page (“Her hair reminds me of a warm, safe place / Where as a child I’d hide / And pray for the thunder and the rain / To quietly pass me by”). True, the “child” of the song’s title is no child, but when John Denver sings about how the sunshine makes him “high,” you don’t really think he means “happy,” do you?