Glenn Beck has a couple. Queen Latifah also has one to her credit. Sarah Ferguson, the duchess of York, has several, and Jerry Seinfeld, Jimmy Buffett, and Dolly Parton published theirs years ago. Even President Obama wrote one. The only thing surprising about Stephen Colbert penning a picture book is that it has taken him this long.
Colbert, who is famous for his tongue-in-cheek performance as the conservative host of late-night cable television’s “Colbert Report,” explained to his studio audience in January why he wanted to write a book for kids: “Nation, anyone that knows me knows that I don’t like children or books or children’s books. But I do respect the free market and children’s books still sell.” His debut, an adults-only take on picture books, “I Am a Pole (And So Can You!),” is so deliberately bad and his fan base is so fervent that it’s guaranteed to be a success — an ironic one, of course.
This book was born out of interviews Colbert did on his show with Maurice Sendak, Caldecott Medal-winning author of “Where the Wild Things Are.” Colbert’s story stars an intrepid pole that is trying to figure out, “What is my true pole role?” And that’s about as good as the rhymes get. When Colbert read an early version of the book to Sendak on his show, the caustic octogenarian, quipped, “The sad thing is, I like it.”
But maybe the only fair approach to take with Colbert’s title is to evaluate it like any other picture book — even though this one is for the 18-and-up crowd (the pole briefly serves as a stripper pole). The design? So-so at best. The relation of image to text? The pictures deliver the humor. The story? Well, it’s a classic quest narrative. The pole is searching for its identity and trying out various occupations along the way from the mundane (telephone pole, fishing pole) to the more challenging (North Pole, tadpole). However, nothing quite fits and though the pole watches the “Colbert Report” with admiration, becoming a TV host is out. It worries that “from what I can deduce,/ The only pole I’m going to be,/ Is one with no good use.” To anyone who might fret over the pole’s fate, please be assured that celebrity picture books wouldn’t be stalwarts of bestseller lists if they didn’t deliver happy endings. Colbert’s book is no exception.
As for the pencil and digital illustrations by Paul Hilde-brand, they are garish, cartoonish, and seem to purposefully recall clip art, making them a perfect match for the clunky stanzas. The pole hero is oddly expressive with its googly eyes and twisting mouth. Readers of Colbert’s “I Am America (And So Can You!)” will recognize that the pole’s raised eyebrow and grimace on the cover are the same as Colbert’s expression on his adult tome. Interior images extend the inherent jokes of the faux earnest text: a peeved looking Santa and reindeer, an irate man at the receiving end of a dinner-time Gallup poll phone call, a cameo by President Obama.
Overall, is it terrible? Does a Wild Thing like a rumpus? But it delivers some laughs, and Colbert’s fans especially will love the twisted humor.
Given that the death of picture books has been proclaimed more times than the Cat in the Hat has caused mischief, the greater attention Colbert can bring to them, the better. And if he keeps having talented and entertaining children’s book authors on his show, I say bring on the sequel: “I Am a Pole (And So Can You, Too!).”
Chelsey Philpot, a book review editor at School Library Journal, can be reached at philpot