The English Roses

Very, very few readers regard Madonna's picture book as "too good to be true"...

There was an article a few weeks ago on Deadspin – titled “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, You’re F*****: 10 Tips For Avoiding Terrible Children’s Books” by Drew Magary – that I thought was fantastic because, beneath Magary’s good-natured vitriol and snark, he gave some really perceptive, insightful advice about trying to steer your kids away from lowest common denominator reading material. (His recommended reading list at the end of the article is particularly good.)

While I couldn’t stop nodding at tips like “Avoid repetitive books”, “Do not buy fancy pop-up books,” or “NEVER buy a DK reader book”, I was surprised to actually find myself pausing when I got to Magary’s last tip – “NEVER buy a children’s book written by a celebrity.” (He then adds: “You already knew this. But just in case you were walking by I Already Know I Love You and thought, ‘Hey, maybe that one won’t suck,’ SHUT UP. You should know better.”)

I’d admit, on the surface, that is a fairly good tip. There are a ridiculous number of celebrities who have dipped their toes into the children’s literature arena – Madonna, Bill Cosby, Katie Couric, Billy Crystal, Ricky Gervais, Joy Behar, Gloria Estefan, Jeff Foxworthy, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Terrell Owens, LeAnn Rimes, Brooke Shields, Maria Shriver, John Travolta, George Foreman, Jimmy Buffett, and Glenn Beck, to only name a small few. (The Atlantic published an intriguing article last year called “Dr. Seuss vs. Madonna: Can Celebrities Write Good Children’s Books?“) While, full disclosure, I haven’t read all of those particular celebrities’ children’s books, I’ve read enough of them to agree with the broad generalization that most celebrities need to realize that just because they CAN write a kids’ book, it doesn’t mean that they SHOULD.

However, the key phrase in that generalization is “MOST celebrities” because, again, if I’m being honest and I HATE to admit this, I DO know some wonderful kids’ books that have been written by celebrities. And, while, yes, MOST celebrities do write underwhelming, self-indulgent, half-assed kids’ books, there are a few legitimately famous people who have written some really strong, savvy children’s titles that I’m proud to have in our home library. So, to add a quick addendum to the whole “avoid celebrity kids’ books” rule, here are my picks for four celebrity children’s book authors who are actually worth a damn.

1. Michael Ian Black

Michael Ian Black

Michael Ian Black

I’m actually surprised that more comedians don’t write children’s books. A strong sense of humor and a skewed worldview seem to be two qualities that both kids’ authors and comedians would share in spades. However, I just haven’t encountered many children’s titles authored by famous comedians and the few I have (I’m thinking of Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld‘s books) seemed disjointed, overwrought, and weirdly reliant on the reader having a working knowledge of the comedian’s on-stage persona, which, c’mon, is an odd expectation for the 7 and under crowd. That being said, there are a few professional funny people who have been able to translate their humor for young readers and, case in point, I think Michael Ian Black, in particular, has done a first-class job in really proving that he’s a skilled and shrewd author for children.

For those unfamiliar, Michael Ian Black is a very funny comic actor and writer whom you know from MTV’s The State, NBC’s Ed, VH1’s “I Love the Decades” series, Wet Hot American Summer, and the Comedy Central series Stella and Michael & Michael Have Issues. He’s also gotten into publishing as of late, releasing a recent essay collection and memoir, and, most importantly to me, authoring some very, very funny picture books. What I really respect about Black’s kids’ books is that he didn’t just take his established comedic persona and try to graft it onto 32-pages of kid-appropriate material. (That’d be like Louis CK trying to do a 10-minute, G-rated set at a Chuck E. Cheese.) Instead, Black took his twisted comedic perspective and used it to create some really fun, silly, and engaging story scenarios that are perfectly suited for a kid’s sensibilities.

The Purple Kangaroo

If a monkey mentions a purple kangatoo, it is surprisingly hard to NOT think about...

In The Purple Kangaroo, Black offers a hysterical riff on the old “don’t think of pink elephants” scenario, in which a very animated monkey talks directly to his readers, promising to read their minds. The monkey then offers an over-the-top description of a crazy purple kangaroo – complete with hula-hoops, roller skates, and more – ends with the declaration that, if you weren’t thinking of a purple kangaroo before, “You’re thinking of one now!” (My daughter reacted to this final punchline like a college student watching the end of The Usual Suspects for the first time. She was delightfully floored.) He also authored Chicken Cheeks, a great picture book about a bear stacking up a bunch of animals to reach some honey – and the majority of the text is just short, extremely funny ways to describe the rear-ends of animals. As the animal tower grows and each creature is forced to deal with the posterior of the animal above them, Black keeps dropping brief phrases like “duck tail,” “moose caboose,” “chicken cheeks,” and “polar bear derriere”, which… it’s a book about finding creative ways to name animal butts – it’s like The Wire for a four-year-old. [read the rest of the post…]