Last year, we reported that actor Channing Tatum would be producing and starring in a film based on his picture book The One and Only Sparkella (Feiwel & Friends, 2021), illustrated by Kim Barnes. Our tweet spawned a Twitter thread full of tongue-in-cheek comments that Tatum had achieved the dream of many hardworking authors who spend years in the query trenches. Point made—in publishing, doors easily open for celebrity authors, regardless of the quality of their literary work.
It can be tempting to dismiss picture books by well-known actors or athletes as vanity projects. But to reject all of them as fluff is ill-advised; think of the great books we would miss out on, like singer/actor Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Still This Love Goes On (Greystone Kids, 2022), illustrated by Julie Flett. Named a Kirkus Best Picture Book and a New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Book, this soaring tribute to Indigenous traditions, nature, and family will be read for years to come. And it’s not the only one. I’ve come across several other thoughtful, appealing recent picture books by authors known primarily for their achievements in other arenas.
Having stepped back from her sporting career, tennis star Serena Williams segued seamlessly into a kid-lit career with The Adventures of Qai Qai (Feiwel & Friends, 2022), illustrated by Yesenia Moises. The story sees a Black baby doll come to life to give her owner a boost of confidence before a dance recital; the titular character is based on Williams’ daughter’s plaything, which has a large social media following. The tale is both affirmation for uncertain youngsters and a testament to children’s vibrant imaginations.
Fellow tennis champion Naomi Osaka has also entered the kid-lit arena. In The Way Champs Play (Harper/HarperCollins, 2022), illustrated by Kamala Nair, the young athletes of Play Academy (an organization founded by Osaka to give girls opportunities to pursue sports) strut their stuff on the polo field, the basketball court, the soccer pitch, and elsewhere; this peppy work makes it clear that cultivating a positive attitude and being a team player are what matter most.
Con Pollo: A Bilingual Playtime Adventure (Feiwel & Friends, 2022), by talk show host Jimmy Fallon and actor/singer Jennifer Lopez, illustrated by Andrea Campos, invites readers to join an endearingly blobby chicken in activities ranging from dancing to visiting the library. Spanish words are interspersed, making for a charming, lively introduction to the language.
Though Stacey Abrams is best known for her political work—including two gubernatorial runs—she’s also an accomplished novelist and children’s book writer. In Stacey’s Remarkable Books (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, 2022), a companion to Stacey’s Extraordinary Words (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, 2021), both illustrated by Kitt Thomas, a young bibliophile helps her immigrant classmates connect with reading—and in turn is encouraged to embrace her inner athlete. Based on reimagined events from Abrams’ childhood, this is an upbeat ode to the power of literature, community, and friendship.
The Green Piano: How Little Me Found Music (Anne Schwartz/Random, Jan. 10), written by Roberta Flack with Tonya Bolden, illustrated by Hayden Goodman, is a rhythmic, rollicking account of the singer’s childhood. Centered on a “ratty, beat-up, weather-worn” piano on which young Roberta perfected her craft, it will motivate budding musicians and introduce children to Flack.
The Kindest Red: A Story of Hijab and Friendship (Little Brown, Jan. 10), written by Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad, a fencer and the first American athlete to compete while wearing a headscarf, and S.K. Ali, illustrated by Hatem Aly, revisits the characters introduced in The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Friendship (Little, Brown, 2019). This warm and much-needed depiction of a Black Muslim family follows young Faizah as she learns about the importance of community and bonds with big sister Asiya on picture day at school.
Mahnaz Dar is a young readers’ editor.