There is also the possibility that using lyrics as text reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how a picture book works. Like a song, a picture book is meant to be heard. Still, although a reader may happen to know the featured song, it’s only fair to expect the book to succeed, its text to flow, for someone who doesn’t. I’m familiar with Dylan’s glorious “If Not for You,” so I know to add a beat to “nowhere” in the line “Without your love I’d be nowhere at all” when I’m reading it on paper; otherwise I might be at sea, rhythm-wise, with the corresponding page’s parent-child doggy sailing duo.
While a song’s repetitive elements may seem suited to picture books, they can also present problems. Some lyrics are pure poetry, but a poem seldom has a chorus — the thing that listeners eagerly anticipate but that, should it become tic-like, readers may wish they could fast-forward over. The adorable, near-pocket-size “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” last holiday season’s repackaging of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David charmer, with exuberant art by Mary Kate McDevitt, uses the line “What the world needs now is love, sweet love” seven times in 24 pages of text. That’s too much love, babe.
Only occasionally does a pop song seem to have been born to be a picture book. If Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash,” illustrated with fittingly toothless spookiness by David Catrow, is the most successful lyrics-to-text transfer I’ve come across, it’s because Pickett wrote the words with a schlockmeister’s soul and a percussionist’s ear.
I decided to make a test case out of Will Smith’s “Just the Two of Us.” I didn’t know the song, but when I read it aloud I didn’t sound like a babbling idiot. It turns out that Smith wrote his valentine to fatherhood with rhythm in mind — in the song, the words are spoken in sync with a beat — so “Just the Two of Us” is a decent choice for a read-aloud experience. Of course, any song-lyrics picture book would do well to tap Kadir Nelson, who is always in tune with whatever he’s illustrating; see, for one, the image in “Just the Two of Us” of the father with hands poised to catch his son as they’re walking alongside a mildly foreboding cityscape at dusk (“So if the world attacks, and you slide off track / Remember one fact, I’ve got your back”).
Naturally, publishers aren’t just picking any old hit that spreads the gospel of love; they’re looking for songs by artists wholesome enough to have their names stamped on a product directed at kids. Having said that, the White Stripes’ “We’re Going to Be Friends,” repurposed as a picture book last year, with nifty red, black and white retro art by Elinor Blake, proved that even a rock act with a dark side can write lyrics fit for a kid (“Walk with me, Suzy Lee / Through the park and by the tree / We will rest upon the ground / And look at all the bugs we found”). Might Sophia and Jackson be ready for a little Guns N’ Roses? The lyrics to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” are squeaky-clean, they could be marketed as a kid’s ode to his or her mom, and they scan beautifully on the page (“Her hair reminds me of a warm, safe place / Where as a child I’d hide / And pray for the thunder and the rain / To quietly pass me by”). True, the “child” of the song’s title is no child, but when John Denver sings about how the sunshine makes him “high,” you don’t really think he means “happy,” do you?