Celebrities aren't known for having tons of spare time, but a handful of them have managed to write children's books between arm reps (Madge) and disciplining the first dog (Obama). We road-tested a few that looked promising—read on to find out if they're worthwhile.
Dirt on My Shirt, by Jeff Foxworthy
Jeff Foxworthy of You Know You’re a Redneck fame offers up a collection of funny poetry in Dirt on My Shirt. Not quite Shel Silverstein, but in the same vein, Foxworthy’s poems tackle silly topics in rhyme that sometimes seems forced. I’d recommend this one mostly for folks who are big Foxworthy fans; it’s an example of a kids' book that works well enough, but will be best received by those who’ve already come to love the author through his original act.
Please, Baby, Please, by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee
I love this book. But primarily for its illustrations. Nelson's adorable oil renderings accurately portray what it's like to be a rambunctious, big-cheeked toddler, as well as an exhausted parent. I lingered on every page for several minutes thanks to the art.
Though the text is somewhat monotonous, the Lees are great in touching on every possible challenge a young one presents—from not sleeping and drawing on the walls to eating sand and splashing in the tub. That said, probably the best part about the writing here is that it harkens back to the famous line in the 1986 film She's Gotta Have It, where Mars Blackmon begs Nola not to dump him: "Please baby, please baby, please baby, baby baby please!" THAT is funny. Still, this book relies heavily on, and wins with, its irresistible artwork.
Late for School, by Steve Martin
Steve Martin is good at so many things: writing fiction, acting, stand-up comedy, banjo playing, and, yes, children’s literature. Late for School is written in wild Martin style—it’s actually the lyrics to one of his songs put to illustration—and it details the crazy morning of a kid who’s desperately trying to get to school on time, only to ultimately discover it’s Saturday. This book is complemented by the Norman Rockwell-ish illustrations and even comes with a CD of the song.
My Mommy Hung the Moon: A Love Story, by Jamie Lee Curtis
JLC and illustrator Laura Cornell have produced close to a dozen kids' books, and it's a good match-up: Curtis's humorous way with words and Cornell's humorous way with pictures result in some very good picture books on topics kids will want to read about, such as: Where Do Balloons Go? Is There Really a Human Race? And, my personal favorite, It's Hard to Be Five: Learning How to Work My Control Panel.
However, I unfortunately found My Mommy Hung the Moon to be a little outrageous. Don't get me wrong, as a woman and a mom, I'm all for promoting the achievements of women and giving mamas their props, but this book is a whirlwind of praise that gives moms credit for EVERYTHING: from feathering the birds, teaching cousins how to burp, blowing air into all the clouds, growing ALL the food and baking everything from scratch, writing ALL the books, flying ALL the planes, collecting ALL the stars at night while kids sleep, and, I kid you not, inventing the Internet. To top it all off, "My mommy is nice. She is never mean."
Phew. Instead of an ode to motherhood, this book feels like the neverending (impossible) to-do list of always-happy Supermom. I recommend one of the other gems by Curtis and Cornell. This one made me feel like I needed a prescription for amphetamines.
My New Teacher and Me, by Al Yankovic
Dare I say it? Weird Al Yankovic, known for his parodies of popular music, is an excellent author. This book, in which a tall tale-telling student meets up with a skeptical teacher, will delight children with its off-the-wall statements, spot-on rhyme, and hysterical illustrations. Especially a great book for boys, My New Teacher and Me is Yankovic’s greatest accomplishment since "Smells Like Nirvana."
The English Roses series, by Madonna
As a parent, I feel pretty unenthusiastic about this series. It's not that impressive on plot, the writing is thin, and I found five (FIVE!) main characters to be unmanageable. Nonetheless, I would have eaten this up as a young girl. As a tween, I loved series about active girls, I loved adorable illustrations, I loved books with pastel spines, and I loved Madonna. Never mind that this generation has no idea who she is (and never mind that when I was a kid the only thing Madonna was doing in a bookstore was probably setting the Bible on fire), this series is probably here to stay.
If Dogs Run Free, by Bob Dylan
This is a nice concept: take some Bob Dylan lyrics that teach kids about freedom, pair them with organic watercolors of running puppies, and you’re sure to have a hit. Right? Well, to a certain extent, yes. This is a sweet book with cute drawings that aims on teaching kids to be themselves and live in harmony.
But, as you can imagine, not all of Dylan’s lyrics transfer that well to pictures or kids. “If dogs run free, then why not we/Across the swooping plain?/My ears hear a symphony/Of two mules, trains, and rain.” Illustrator Scott Campbell captures all these images in adorable artwork, but it doesn’t quite make sense.
When I read If Dogs Run Free to my sons, there were a lot of frowns. Is this about dogs? Is this about a train? What is a “swamp of time”? Why is that pug hang gliding? Can we get a dog? Can we? Can we? PLEEEAAASSSE. In short, my kids lost literary interest about halfway through and decided to just start begging for a pet. (It probably also didn’t help that I read this in my Bob Dylan voice.)
Micawber, by John Lithgow
This is one of our family’s favorite children’s books of all time. Written in exquisite and funny verse, and supplemented with beautiful illustrations, it tells the story of a squirrel who lives in the Central Park carousel, but spends most of his time admiring fine art at The Met by peering through a skylight. One day, he sneaks a ride to an artist’s apartment, where he teaches himself to paint (using his tail as a brush), eventually amassing enough artwork of his own to have an art show back in his carousel nest, to which he invites his city friends, among them a rat, a possum, a cockroach, and a pigeon. This book is one of close to a dozen praiseworthy kids’ books Lithgow has written, proving he is no one-hit wonder, but that he may well be as good of an author as he is an actor.
Of Thee I Sing: A Letter To My Daughters, by Barack Obama
I like this book. Even though I’m unconvinced that any president actually has the time to come up a kids’ book concept and fully develop it without a co-author of some sort, I AM convinced that this is a very important book, and one that all children should have on their bookshelves.
Within, Obama composes a tribute to thirteen pivotal Americans and their contributions to our society. From Georgia O’Keeffe and Helen Keller to Jackie Robinson, Billie Holiday and more, younger generations can fully understand how this great, diverse country came to be through brave, groundbreaking individuals of all backgrounds. Beautiful illustrations, decent text, and an essential message for all Americans.