A great songwriter is a master of language, of storytelling, of world-building. Unsurprisingly, these are traits also shared by great authors of children’s literature… Surely at one time or another, we’ve all heard a song on the radio and thought to ourselves “That should be a book!” (Does anybody else think this when they hear “Oops, I Did it Again”? No? Just me? Okay then…) On occasion, when someone hears a song and thinks to themselves “That should be a book!” the song actually becomes a book. Here we present for your reading pleasure, a selection of books based on songs by some of the most celebrated songwriters of our time.
MAN GAVE NAMES TO ALL THE ANIMALS | BOB DYLAN | ILLUSTRATED BY JIM ARNOSKY
Based on a song from Bob Dylan‘s 1979 album, Slow Train Coming, “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” is perfect for pre-schoolers. It’s repetitive and simple, and describes the animals before announcing their name, giving kids a chance to guess:
“Man saw an animal leavin’ a muddy trail; real dirty face and a curly tail. He wasn’t too small and he wasn’t too big… Ah-ah-ah, I think I’ll call it a pig.”
The illustrations, by Jim Arnosky –the author/illustrator of The Pirates of Crocodile Swamp– are beautiful. Reminiscent of Graeme Base, they’re colorful and detailed, and they fill the pages, giving the reader something to look for.
My favorite thing about this, though, is that it introduced my daughter to Dylan, and when she sings the song she sings “Man gave names to all the aminals…”
COAT OF MANY COLORS | DOLLY PARTON | ILLUSTRATED BY JUDITH SUTTON
Dolly Parton‘s story of a young girl who needs a coat for the coming winter is surely one of the most touching in all of country music; and all the more for the fact that it rings true with the singer’s background: Parton grew up the youngest of twelve in abject poverty; she has said that her father paid the doctor who delivered her in oatmeal, and that “Coat of Many Colors” is a true story.
Essentially, a little girl needs the coat, but her family is too poor to buy one; her mother scrounges rags and pieces of cloth and sews one for her, for which the girl is teased mercilessly at school, but the girl doesn’t care, because even if her family has no money, they have love.
It’s a genius story-song, and all the more for the fact that, despite the subject matter, it’s never manipulative or melodramatic. It’s just the way things were.
It’s also the kind of story ripe for a kid’s book: It’s about gratitude, and the nature of love. It’s about understanding:
“One is only poor, only if they choose to be. Now, I know we had no money, but I was rich as I could be in my coat of many colors my momma made for me.”
The pictures, by Judith Sutton, are well done and fit with the story. (Although, I have to admit, I am really not a fan of the borders around all of the pages.)
SUNSHINE ON MY SHOULDERS | JOHN DENVER | ILLUSTRATED BY CHRISTOPHER CANYON
John Denver‘s song about loving life, and enjoying being together makes for a wonderful storybook, adapted as the tale of a young girl spending the day out with her father a menagerie and an acoustic guitar. (The father bears more than a passing resemblance to songwriter…)
Christopher Canyon‘s illustrations are bright, light and airy and suit the subject matter perfectly. They have a bit of a seventies vibe to them, which serves to heighten the feeling of nostalgia.
Canyon and Denver also collaborated on two other adaptations, Take Me Home, Country Roads and Grandma’s Feather Bed.
STAY UP LATE | DAVID BYRNE | ILLUSTRATED BY MAIRA KALMAN
When my wife and I were expecting I made a CD of baby-centric songs to give out as party favours at our baby shower, and track number one on that CD was this Talking Heads tune from their 1985 album, Little Creatures. It’s a very funny song, about a little girl whose got a new baby brother, and she can’t think of anything better to do with him than keep him awake, late at night:
“See him drink… From a bottle. See him eat… From a plate.
Cute, cute… As a button. Don’t you wanna make him… Stay up late.?
The illustrations capture the slightly off-kilter mood of David Byrne‘s lyrics; they are bright and very colourful, with interesting character designs… Exactly what you’d expect from the great Maira Kalman. (If you haven’t seen her illustrations for Strunk’s Elements of Style, you’re in for a treat…)
AT THE ZOO | PAUL SIMON | ILLUSTRATED BY VALERIE MICHAUT
Like many of the others on this list, Paul Simon‘s ode to life in New York City (from Simon and Garfunkel‘s 1968 release, Bookends) feels like it was written to be a children’s book, with the exception of a few words, like “reactionaries” and “mercenaries.” (Although, I always love reading books to my daughter containing words that we have to discuss, so it’s still a great read-aloud option for us…) The song is a tribute to that city’s Bronx Zoo; the first half gets you there –”You can take the crosstown bus if it’s raining or it’s cold”– and the second half tells you a bit about the animals you’ll see when you get there:
“The monkeys stand for honesty, the giraffes are insincere,
and the elephants are kindly, but they’re dumb.”
Valerie Michaut‘s illustrations in this one are likely to be a love ’em or hate ’em affair; personally, I find them a bit cutesy. The giraffes wear shades and that kind of thing… That said, they’re impeccably done, and filled with nice details, and the whacky affectations are likely to appeal to the kids.