Why Do So Many Celebs Write Children’s Books?

3 weeks ago

Why do so many celebrities write children’s books? It can’t be that they think to themselves, Gee, I’d like to write a book, and kids’ books seem short, simple, and easy. I’ll crank one out before dinnertime! The answer must be that since they have already attained global success in the realms of singing or acting or morning-show hosting or playing professional sports, they now feel ready to take on the biggest challenge known to mankind. Because writing a great children’s book is really, really hard, and no one knows this better than parents, who are forced to read aloud, over and over again, books both cosmically perfect (Goodnight Moon) and execrable (Dragons Love Tacos).

Good children’s books have to satisfy at least four out of these six requirements. Anything less than three is failure.

With these rules in mind, I collected 15 books by famous people and reviewed them, with occasional help from my easily bored 5-year-old, Ilya. Here they are, in order from worst to best.

Finally, it’s here, the book everyone has been clamoring for: woke retellings of Aesop’s fables (“The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Three Little Pigs,” “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse”), by Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman! In Portman’s version of “The Three Little Pigs,” the first two pigs unwisely build their houses out of fast-food leftovers and plastic drinking straws. The wolf blows their houses down to warn them that only sustainable, environmentally friendly building practices are acceptable. Imagine reading this out loud to a child: “Planning and thinking about how to build cleanly / Makes your house sturdy / And keeps our earth looking greenly.” Plot notwithstanding, I award it negative points for forcing me to explain the concept of “offsetting carbon emissions” at bedtime.

14. The Bench , by Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, illustrated by Christian Robinson

“This is your bench / Where life will begin / For you and our son / Our baby, our kin,” this book begins, illustrated by a Harry and Archie–esque infant-dad duo sitting on a bench. Other dads and other benches (a diverse panoply of dads and benches) are accompanied by similarly tortured rhymed couplets. It concludes, “Right there on your bench / The place you’ll call home / With daddy and son … / You’ll never be ’lone.” Lone. LONE? Reading “you’ll never be ’lone” out loud with a straight face is very challenging. It’s weird for Meghan Markle, whose biggest problem historically has been her estranged dad selling her out to the tabloids, to write a book about the unbreakable bond of fatherhood. It’s not like her husband has such a great relationship with his dad, either: See Spare, which is a fun book by a very talented ghostwriter. The lesson here is hire a ghostwriter. Also, no plot. Zero points.

13. Hope Is a Rainbow , by Hoda Kotb, illustrated by Chloe Dominique

This book is, as you’d expect, about the concept of “hope,” which is also the name of one of Kotb’s daughters, aww. Its Netflix-kids’-show-quality illustrations feature a strenuously multiethnic group of kids whose job is to enact HomeGoods wall-art-type sentiments like “Hope is a rainbow … after rain spoiled your fun. Clouds ALWAYS pass, making way for the sun.” Ilya, when quizzed, said this book is about “finding good friends,” which is charitable and also a stretch. The final couplet is the nonsense sentence “Always and forever, my wish for you / With hope in your heart, all your dreams will come true.” The author bio conveys the sobering information that Today show co-host Kotb is the author of seven books. This one unfortunately gets zero points.

12. The World Needs Who You Were Made to Be , by Joanna Gaines, illustrated by Julianna Swaney

I guess my main issue with this book by home-redecoration guru and Target-line-haver Joanna Gaines is that it’s about a team of kids assembling hot-air balloons, which seems extremely dangerous. They each build a balloon in their own particular style, then fly around in them. Typically, hot-air balloons are propelled by gas-heated air, but these balloons are lifted into the air by … individuality? I’m not asking for kids’ books to make literal sense — in fact, the less of that, the better — but the whimsical illustrations in this book are a weird mismatch for the text, which is from a New Age HR manual. “Some of us work alone. And some of us work side by side. Some of us are quiet and like to think things through. And others prefer to chitchat about all we have to do!” It takes all kinds to make a healthy workplace, by which I mean a children’s hot-air-balloon factory.

The thing I enjoyed most about this book was its soothing coordinated color palette of subtle greens and blues enlivened by splashes of coppery red, which is the same thing I, despite myself, enjoy about the rest of Gaines’s oeuvre. You can’t deny that the lady has an eye for color. For this, I award the book .5 of a point in total.

11. Why Not You? , by Ciara and Russell Wilson with JaNay Brown-Wood, illustrated by Jessica Gibson

Kudos to the singer-quarterback couple for crediting their co-writer (i.e., ghostwriter). Unfortunately, the prose still leaves something to be desired. “Is there something that you dream of? / Something that you’d be or do? / Something that would make you happy / And make all your dreams come true?” the book begins, as two kids stare out the window at a butterfly. Okay, so, stay with me here. Is there a … dream … that would make all your … dreams … come true? I got a headache just typing that.

This is a book about how you can become anything you want to be, because why not you? “You are perfect and important.” A kid in a wheelchair juggles. A boy wears fairy wings. The only concession to any less-than-optimistic outcome is a page about how “disappointing situations / May make triumph hard for you,” which is deep, if you think about it. Triumph can feel as overwhelming as failure at times. I don’t think that’s what the authors meant, though. Anyway, this book doesn’t have a plot. The illustrations are perfectly charming and would be at home in almost any contemporary kids’ book. The Wilsons get 1 point for read-aloud-ability.

10. C Is for Country , by Lil Nas X, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III

There was so much potential for this book to be good if it had captured any of the chaotic magic of Lil Nas X’s playful tweets or stage persona. Sadly, it is simply a relic of the weird era — summer 2019 — when “Old Town Road”’s Billy Ray Cyrus remix was peaking in popularity and was widely perceived to be a song for children. I would wager that Lil Nas X’s people thought he ought to release a children’s book. A meeting was held, and this anodyne book was produced. A miniaturized Lil Nas X leads us through the alphabet and his day, dressing up in a spangly cowboy suit and riding a pony named Panini. “Q is for quality time — I love my fam.” Sigh. No mention of “bull ridin’ and boobies” here. 1 point for having a semblance of plot (the course of a day).

9. River Rose and the Magical Lullaby , by Kelly Clarkson, illustrated by Laura Hughes

The book is structured around a lullaby that Clarkson sings to her children, which is sweet. The mom in the story uses it to sing her daughter River Rose to sleep the evening before an exciting trip to the zoo, and during the night, River Rose dreams that she and her dog are magically transported to the zoo. “Soon she was flying and swooshing through the sky / On the adventure of a lifetime, with Joplin by her side.” That kind of uninspired near-rhyme and arrhythmic meter is characteristic of the whole book, but I still think a pro wrote it because it’s so personality-free. 1 point for plot.

8. Bella the Brave , by Rebel Wilson, illustrated by Annabel Tempest

This is the story of a girl who gets over her shyness by joining a girls’ choir, eventually winning the lead in her school play. “Bella was shy, to the point where she’d cry / When invited to a party, she’d often lie / Other kids would raise their hands, eager to be heard / But Bella sat silent / She never said a word.” Nope, sorry, try again. It’s really not that hard to convey a simple idea in lines that scan! “Other kids raised their hands, to speak and be heard / But Bella sat silent, not saying a word.” See how freaking easy that was?! Other lines in this book only rhyme if you say them in an Australian accent: “Deep down, Bella knew something was missing / There were many things inside her that she just wasn’t expressing.”

On the plus side, it has a plot. The illustrations are inoffensive, even cute. Also, Ilya said, “This girl Bella is like this girl X in my class,” and pronounced it “good,” probably because he was feeling generous and this was toward the top of the pile and he hadn’t gotten bored yet. Bella the Brave gets two points.

7. Shady Baby , by Gabrielle Union-Wade and Dwyane Wade, illustrated by Tara Nicole Whitaker

The illustrations of a baby who arches a brow and gets her way are cute. The meter is inconsistent, making it a tough read-aloud, but “Shady Baby” is fun to say over and over. Shady Baby sometimes has speech bubbles that say things like, “Hold on to your floaties, y’all! D.J. B.I.G. Boss is in the house,” prompting Ilya to point out that babies can’t talk. Also, the whole point was that Shady Baby’s facial expressions always let you know exactly how she’s feeling, but whatever. There is something of a plot, albeit a late-breaking one. A girl on the playground snatches Shady Baby’s elephant toy, and her posse defends her, lecturing the girl about sharing. Then the thief is repentant and wants to play with Shady Baby and her friends. “Okay,” Shady Baby smiles. “You can join our crew / Only if you learn to play / The way that real friends do.” Two points: one point for having a plot and another point because Shady Baby is an impressively nuanced character, especially considering that she is a baby.

6. Peanut Goes for the Gold, by Jonathan Van Ness, illustrated by Gillian Reid

Queer Eye grooming expert and prolific podcaster Van Ness spins a tale of a nonbinary guinea pig with a passion for rhythmic gymnastics. I would put this book in the category of “things that are about four or five times better than they actually need to be.” The illustrations are charming, and Peanut’s journey contains narrative tension. Will Peanut’s failure to tie their shoes dash their dreams of winning the rhythmic-gymnastics competition, or will they spin it into a new move? Well, you can probably guess, but one point for plot, another for correct text-to-pictures ratio, and yet another star for excellent read-aloud-ability. A sturdy ranking of three is not too shabby.

5. The One and Only Sparkella , by Channing Tatum, illustrated by Kim Barnes

I was worried about this one, because Channing Tatum is known for his dance skills, muscle definition, and unexpected acting range but not, perhaps, his erudition. Luckily, he delivers with Sparkella, the first in a series of books inspired by his relationship with his daughter.

Ella, also known as Sparkella, is nervous for her first day at a new school, but she dresses in her sparkly best. Her extremely down-for-whatever dad follows suit, throwing on an insouciant shimmering boa. Unfortunately, no one at school seems to be picking up what she’s putting down. The next day, she tones down the sparkle, which leaves her feeling defeated. So on day three, she dresses in her sparkliest outfit ever. Her dad puts on a tutu. At school and at work (not pictured), they have the best day ever, culminating in a dad-daughter dance party. Maybe it’s not the most original story of all time, but it’s a story, there are no rhymes, and it can be read aloud. Thank you for coming through for me, Magic Mike. Three well-earned points for you.

4. My Little Brave Girl , by Hilary Duff, illustrated by Kelsey Garrity-Riley

I found this book … nice? Ilya is a big fan of The Lizzie McGuire Movie and its soundtrack, so he was pretty excited about My Little Brave Girl, despite its being directly addressed to a daughter: “The world is big, my little brave girl / It’s all here for you.” So you can tell it’s another one of those “dream big, you’re special” plot-free books, but this time I’m okay with it for some reason. The illustrations help a lot; a team of multiethnic little girls adventure through nature, bake, dance in puddles, chase butterflies, and have a slumber party, all painted in dreamy pastel-watercolor shades. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that the text doesn’t rhyme or attempt to rhyme. “Oceans run deep / And you will learn to swim.” Like, that’s kind of beautiful? Duff’s bio mentions that she is the “chief brand officer” of some brands and also that she is “dedicated to providing consumers with high-quality, natural, environmentally friendly products,” which is such a weird thing to include in your bio that I can only assume she was contractually obligated to for some reason. Still, this book receives a surprising four points.

3. Remember to Dream, Ebere , by Cynthia Erivo, illustrated by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow

Cynthia Erivo is an Oscar short of an EGOT and also has written an earnest and sweet children’s book. Ebere has trouble sleeping, and every time she wakes up, her mother encourages her to dream a little bit more of her dream of a fire-engine-red rocket ship. Each time Ebere goes back to sleep, her dream is illustrated with more vivid detail, with watercolor drawings that show a cute bespectacled child and a loving, infinitely patient mother.

Personally, if my kid woke up and told me about his dream multiple times, I might be more likely to threaten to take away the next day’s screen time than I would be to sweetly encourage him to keep dreaming, but books are meant to transport us to a fantastical world where anything is possible. This is a solid four-pointer.

2. The Secret Society of Aunts and Uncles , by Jake Gyllenhaal and Greta Caruso, illustrated by Dan Santat

I asked for plot, and boy, this book delivers! It may even deliver too much. Leo, a shy kid with glasses, is disappointed to be picked up from dance class by his un-fun Uncle Mo, who’s in town for a rubber-band convention. Once they get in the car, though, they’re spirited away to a magical Secret Society of Aunts and Uncles. Here, Mo will learn how to be a fun uncle, quizzed game-show-style on the SAT (Stellar Aunt-Uncle Test), which has questions like “What time is bedtime?” (Correct answer: “Three minutes before Mom and Dad get home!”) Mo fails more than a few tests, but finally finds success when he fixes Leo’s glasses, which always slip off when he dances, via rubber band. Victory achieved, they’re transported back to the real world, where they share a tender moment before bedtime. Phew!

My only real issue with this book is that it’s tricky to read aloud — there’s a lot of text on every page, some of it in the form of captions or signage. It almost seems better suited to be read by a kid who’s old enough to read to himself, but the picture-book format signals that it’s for younger kids. Still, I’m happy that Gyllenhaal got to have this lark with his best friend Caruso and that the outcome is quirky and unexpected. Four points for plot, illustration, funniness, and absurdity. You may not have been a good boyfriend to Taylor Swift, Jake, but you did (co-)write a B+ kids’ book.

1. The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit , by Emma Thompson, illustrated by Eleanor Taylor

It’s not fair to compare Emma Thompson to any of the other authors on this list — Thompson is a writer. She won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Sense and Sensibility, and we real Thompson heads know that the screenplay in question was published alongside her shooting diary, an effortlessly charming account of sheep, rain, bad digestion, and little clues that she’s developing a crush on co-star and future husband Greg Wise. Emma Thompson is a golden god who can do no wrong, and her continuation of the beloved Beatrix Potter series is as wonderful as I expected it to be. In the first installment (of three), Peter falls asleep in a picnic basket and winds up in Scotland, where some Scottish rabbits are having a contest to see who can throw giant vegetables farthest. Go off, Emma Thompson! This is a great book to read to babies and little children for the sheer pleasure of reading it yourself. For older kids, it might be too quiet and slow-moving. It’s also pretty long, so you could spread it over a night or two of bedtimes. This book gets six out of six available points, but again, the deck is overwhelmingly stacked in Thompson’s favor. She’s Alice Munro compared to the rest of these people.…Read more by Emily Gould


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