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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Pop Song Picture Books: A Couple Predictions

With the odd exception, it’s safe to say that when it comes to celebrity picture books most of us out here in libraryland are less than impressed.  The announcement that the latest reality star or pop singer has a picture book coming out allows us to check out the illustrator’s talent far more often than the author’s.  Yet every season publishers churn out, one after another.  I’m not looking at any statistics at the moment, but my general impression is that they are perhaps less ubiquitous here in late 2012 than they were even four or five years ago.  I’m not sure how to account for that.  Perhaps they are pulling in less money than they used to?

One offspring of the celebrity picture book genre, if genre it is, is the adaptation of a famous song into a picture book format.  These types of books have been gaining in popularity, though they’re certainly not new.  They’ve always been an easy way to make a book without disgusting the gatekeepers too much.  In a way, this method of authorship also yields better books than you might get if the author sat down and tried to write one.  This has something to do with the fact that when a songwriter is creating a work for adults they fail to indulge in that pandering that can ruin a perfectly good picture book.

There are several different types of songs-turned-picture books. First you have the songs that were written with a child audience in mind.  These slip into picture book form with great ease.

“New Baby Train” by Woody Guthrie

“Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter Yarrow

“It’s Raining, It’s Pouring” by Peter, Paul and Mary

Then you have the songs from musicals that work in a picture book context without much knowledge of the shows they came from:

“What’s New at the Zoo” from Do Re Mi

“Never Never Land” from Peter Pan

Even more interesting to me, though are the songs that were written for adults and never intended for a child marketplace.

“Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan

“Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley

“One Love” by Bob Marley

“At the Zoo” by Simon & Garfunkle

There are a multitude of other examples of these, but you get the picture.

It got me to thinking too.  I mean, what’s to stop contemporary artists from repackaging their own top of the pop hits in a couple decades or so into picture book wonders?  By that point app and ebook technology will have improved significantly, allowing readers to see the books alongside the original songs.  The only question then is what songs today will be the picture books of tomorrow.  Some possibilities:

“We’re Going to Be Friends” by The White Stripes

Yeah.  So this song was pretty much the impetus behind this entire post.  And why not?  It’s the world’s most perfect little ditty and it would adapt perfectly.

“The Christians and the Pagans” by Dar Williams

I was going to suggest her “The Babysitter’s Here” but you’d probably have to cut too much out.  This would be a good old-fashioned hippy picture book, if that ever comes back into style.  For the record, Ms. Williams actually wrote two full middle grade novels for kids in the past, so she doesn’t need to slum it this way if she wants to publish.  She’s already far more legitimate an author than most.

Empire State of Mind (Part II) by Alicia Keys

Remember how they made that Simon & Garfunkle song about the zoo into a picture book?  Well, there was some judicious editing at work there (example: “And the zookeeper is very fond of rum” shows the man patting a raccoon on the head with the nametag of “Rum”).  The same would have to be done with this one but aside from the occasional “selling rock” there isn’t much of anything that’s objectionable for the 4-8 crowd.

Those are just off the top of my head.  Other suggestions are more than welcome.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth 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.


  1. What about Particle Man, No! or I Am Not Your Broom by They Might Be Giants (or just about anything by them)?

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Oh god yes. And now that you mention it, it’s almost strange that they haven’t made one of those songs into a book. I envision a collection of their songs, illustrated by different artists, coming out in about 10 years or so. Yeah. That’s the ticket.

  2. But there is the TMBG picture book Bed Bed Bed…. (And I Am Not Your Broom is from an album geared to kids, so it falls into that category in your post, for whatever that’s worth).

    It’s interesting that the adult-song-as-picture-book examples you have above kinda fall into the “quiet” category – about a mood or place rather than a character or story.

    Maybe we should dig back into the story-song pop era and try a song like The Blind Man in the Bleachers? So many from that time are pretty depressing though or older skewing (The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, for example).

    Personally, I’m waiting for the Ramones – I Wanna Be Sedated. Now you’re talking!

  3. Dibs on “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

  4. Last year an illustrator did a neat version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity as a picture book (you may have linked to it.) But I think David Bowie inc. shut it down. It’d be interesting to hear the behind-the-scenes on how these books get started. Does the illustrator approach the songwriter? Does an editor? Is it all the songwriter? Who starts these things?

    Also, has anyone ever tackled a song-lyric book with existing picture book characters? For example, I’d like to see Elephant and Piggie do “I’m Too Sexy” as a book.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Not sure. I always assumed that it was the songwriter who started things, but is that even the case? Loved that Space Oddity book too. It was a sad day when that disappeared.

      And at this point I think “I’m Too Sexy” is a bit dated. Elephant and Piggie would be doing “I’m Sexy and I Know It” instead. I particularly look forward to the “wiggle wiggle wiggle wiggle” parts.

  5. Dated yes, but it has so many good visual props. The shirt, the hat, Milan, New York and Japan.

  6. What? No Ke$ha?

  7. I’m wondering if it’s the editor’s seed idea to do these books. Pay the copyright fees and hire an illustrator. Bing boom bang, a book is born.

  8. I’ve always thought that “I Feel Good” by James Brown was secretly a children’s song: “I feel nice, like sugar and spice…”

  9. Love this post, especially the “We’re going to be Friends” clip.

  10. Jennifer in GA says:

    I would pay SO MUCH MONEY for Elephant and Piggie doing “I’m Too Sexy”.

  11. I think “I’m Too Sexy for My Hat” would be a wonderful way for Jon Klassen to round out a Hat Trilogy.

  12. Jennifer in GA says:

    I think “If I Had a Million Dollars” by BNL would make a great children’s book!

  13. love this.

    Now I’m gonna be running through songs in my head all day, but I always thought De La Soul’s “Tread Water” was pretty much already a picture book:

    As I walked along my journey,
    I thought ‘What have I just learned?”
    In a flash I saw commotion
    There was movement in these ferns.
    Silently the silence came,
    Was it the end of my world?
    I shouted out in fear, ‘Who’s there?’
    ‘It’s me,’ said Mr. Squirrel.

  14. it’s not pop, and definitely not new, but I’m reminded of David Byrne’s Stay up Late, illustrated by Maira Kalman.

  15. Also not pop, but worth mentioning due to the fun factor and singability: Lisa Loeb’s Lisa Loeb’s Silly Sing-Along: The Disappointing Pancake and Other Zany Songs.

  16. Chalk one vote up for Ben Fold’s “Gracie.”