Elbow grease by John Cena

Do you know who John Cena is? Of course you do. He’s the guy from the memes. Also a wrestler. Also an actor. Also… a picture book author? In 2018, Cena’s plucky little monster truck roared onto the shelves. Elbow Grease is a fun story, with bright art, a good message, and–of course–tons of awesome monster trucks!

Cena isn’t the only celebrity to dip their toes into the picture book business. In 2003, I had no idea who Madonna was, but I pored over the pictures in The English Roses. It took me a long time to realize that Jamie Lee Curtis had a career besides picture book author. And I still don’t really know Kay Thompson as anyone other than the writer of the fabulous Eloise books.

Famous names might catch a parent’s interest, but young readers will focus on the book itself. Is it fun? Engaging? Worth reading more than once? Let’s look at the elements of a good picture book, and the celebrities who got it right.

First of all, there’s the actual writing. The brevity of picture books means that each word has to count. Some celebrity authors focus more on the story they want to tell and neglect the way that they tell it. Concise writing leads to snappier pacing. Jimmy Fallon and B. J. Novak understand the importance of a tight manuscript.

Illustrations also play a vital role in the success of a picture book. Brilliant art can uplift an unremarkable text, and uninspired art can distract from even the best writing. In a best case scenario, the pictures and the text will work together to create a positive reading experience–for both the child and their grown-up!

There is even more going on behind the scenes—art direction, book design, and editorial guidance all affect the final product. Somebody has to decide how thick the paper is, how large the pages are, and how the book will be physically assembled. Typography has a direct impact on readability; font choice, text size, and color can either aid or hinder young readers. A savvy editor will work with an author to sharpen a manuscript, while preserving the author’s voice and style. It’s a magical thing when all these separate elements come together to create a compelling picture book.

Like any other book, a celebrity’s picture book will have to speak for itself once published. Shoppers have their pick of countless new books, as well as a robust catalogue of tried-and-true classics. Some stories will make a home in the hearts of readers, while other might turn out to be a flash in the pan. But the only way to find great books is to read many, and often. Prima ballerina, Broadway star, award-winning actress, ESPN sports anchor… you never know who has a wonderful story to tell!