Monday, 7 April 2014

Celebrities writing children's fiction; what's wrong with it?

Could you write a best-selling children's book?

Tom Lamont, a writer and commissioning editor for the Observer, wrote a very interesting piece today for the Guardian, in dialogue with children's author, Robert Muchamore.  In it,he underlines what I, as a parent think and feel about the ever-growing number of celebrity authors. 

Find the article here

"A celebrity – Kylie, Sting – announces his or her intention to write for children, and I instinctively feel for the career-pledged writers who have been huffing away with their thesaurus and watercolour brushes for years. Beneath them, the hopefuls with worthwhile manuscripts hustle for interest... And, uh oh, here's another celebrity, lolloping into the game. They've noodled out an idea on a Groucho Club napkin. Their agent has swivelled at the bar to arrange a six-figure deal. The published result, you can bet, will absorb more than its share of publicity budgets, review space, shelf space."

Working in a children's library, it's something I'm asked all the time; 'which books will my child like?' and also, 'which books are best for my child?'.

And I really do think I am quite good at pointing someone in the right direction.  I myself have a special interest in children's literature and have studied the development of it, so celebrity writing is something which I have certainly noticed growing at a rapid rate on our bookshelves, and I see first-hand the impact it has when there is a chance to pick it up, for free, over a host of other titles.

The world of literature is awash with people who think they have a fantastic idea for a children's book - after all, it seems so easy, doesn't it?

I wrote to the zoo, to send me a pet...

Think of all of your children's favourites - Dear Zoo, Goodnight Moon, Guess How Much I Love you, Kipper - all with simple words and picture illustrations.  Surely it doesn't take a genius to put together a successful children's book?

The truth is, it's really hard to get it right.  Children are the most discerning audience, and above anything else are honest in their approach to things; if they do not like something, they will not pick it up.

Also, developmentally speaking, they are already geared towards a certain kind of literature at a certain age - it's not enough to simply have an easy story for pre-schoolers; research has shown that a story with rhyme and repetition works best, which is probably why author Julia Donaldson is so popular.

Oh help, oh no!

Baby board book have become so much more than pictures with words - there's now a huge array of black and white picture books, touch and feel boards and surprise flap books to garner the interest of the smallest babes.

So how is it then, that most celebrities who write, do in fact get it right? How are they so popular?

David Walliams and his fabulous fiction
We could argue that someone like David Walliams is naturally attuned to how children think- as Lamont points out, he is'an anomaly. He actually writes his own books, and as anyone who has ever sat a 10-year-old boy in front of an episode of Little Britain will attest, he knows how to make kids laugh.'

But when you think of someone like Madonna, or Katie Price, do you immediately think of someone who has a natural affinity with children, who could make kids giggle?

Tom loves a good book!
Sure, they are both mothers, so they must do to some degree, but are they, like so many celeb-authors seem to be, brilliant children's writers?

And if kids, who don't really know who these people are, are judging their books on content rather than who wrote them, like them, does it really matter?

Lamont claims we are jealous:

"We like to pretend we're reasonable souls, but most of us are way more petty and jealous than we'd like to admit. I mean, we may hate bankers, but if someone offered you two million a year to wear a snappy suit and yell, "Buy, buy, buy!" down a telephone you wouldn't say no, would you?"

There is something a bit odd about it all though, a bit cringe-worthy.  And I've been trying to work out what it is.

I think it makes me feel funny because books are a sacred and very intricate world into which a child steps. It's free.  It's pure. It's a world free from commercialism (in the main) and everything is completely based in imagination.

A book provides some of our most intimate childhood moments - at bedtime, when we are ill, when we are sad and connects with us in a way that is as individual as we are.  It's a mother's warm cuddle at night, entertainment on a rainy day, travel when we have to stay where we are.

For our children, I can think of nothing more important.

Reading has always been on the menu!

The names of children's authors, are words we utter to our book seller or librarians in the search for an old fable or beautiful moment from our own childhood, whispered with a twist of a smile on our lips.  These names are those who brought us all the understanding we sought out as children in an ever-confusing world.

It's not very often that we know much about them, or even what they look like.  And with massively magical authors, such as Roald Dahl or Judith Kerr, the author's own lives become a beautiful fable themselves, abound with rumours of magic and whimsy.

But these celebrities who write - the Madonnas, the Holly Willoughbys, the Russel Brands - we know more about them than is comfortable or necessary.  We know who they had sex with, what affairs they've had, the bad habits they advertise and, in the case of Katie Price, what their intimate parts look like during childbirth.

It doesn't feel right that we should be inviting their 'brands' into our children's domains.

Children's authors, traditionally, haven't courted this kind of celebrity for themselves, and we are all very comfortable with that.  But, quite rightly, they are peeved at the attention a celebrity's book is given - getting a book published is a difficult and emotional time for many authors.  It must feel like standing patiently in line, just to see the big ballsy, loudmouth bully skip the queue.

Children's author Robert Muchamore laments:

'It's time we recognised our top kids' authors for the cultural icons that they really are, and rewarded them with their rightful place in the celebrity limelight. I could display my intelligence and wit on Have I Got News For YouMichael Morpurgo could sing with the stars, and Philip Pullman can be the elderly one who isn't very good on Strictly. Malorie Blackman can host telethons and we can send Jo Rowling off to the jungle to sleep in the dirt and eat locusts.
And then we can stop this silly fuss, because we'll all be celebrities!'

In conclusion, what are books written by celebrities doing for us?  What is so wrong with them really?  After all, our kids read them, they like them, they re-read them and recommend them to their friends.  They talk about them.  And isn't that what we are trying to get our kids to do?  Fundamentally, by hook or by crook, we all want our kids to read more.
In short, there's nothing wrong with anything that gets children reading.  We may sneer at the latest celebrity attempt to push their brand onto our children.  We might balk at the way in which such a beautiful world of literature and free imagination is being rammed by the ever-growing tide of consumerism at it's finest. 
However, the truth of the matter is that the rise of celebrity authors is  casually destroying barriers between children who read and children who don't read, making it a much mre 'normal' and 'accepted' activity.  
That can only be a good thing.


  1. This is a really great post. I've never really thought about it much I think authors who are genuinely passionate about writing children's books become the 'greats', the books we never forget, the books that you read at school and do book reports on... I feel like... I would rather spend money on books written by those who are doing it for the love, than for those who may be doing it for the love but who knows because they do so much else that has nothing to do with children or books! I hope that makes some kind of sense!

    1. That makes perfect sense Charlotte, and a good point. I think consumerism sometimes gets in the way of truly great work.
      Think of all the artists who dies poor, but now their paintings sell for millions, simply because they weren't the 'fashion' at the time. Imagine never knowing how much your work is appreciated because it never got a chance in your lifetime! There is a huge difference between people who love what they do and folk who are just out to cash in on something. I think it's easy to tell - especially among children's fiction.

  2. I think it is a case of feeling sceptical about how good these celebrities will be. David Walliams is a slightly different case as he peddles humour and was already a writer before writing childrens books, so the key ingredients and experience was there, but for many it is simply another thing to do and yes they do get all the fabulous publicity and smaller publishers may not have the budget to spend on their authors, so they will be popular through mass exposure and the recognition factor. I would have to read each individually to decide, but I will remain sceptical.

    1. I guess I find it hard to see the difference between the 'fluff' titles that make up a lot of children's series at the mo, and celebrity writers - they're all trying to achieve the same thing; make more money! A lot of the writing is formulaic and there's no real depth to it. i think that's what i associate celeb writing with - because it's just another part of their 'brand', and that brand isn't about doing something for the love of it, it's about peddling their worth for as long as people will buy it!

  3. > we can send Jo Rowling off to the jungle to sleep in the dirt and eat locusts.

    Hasn't she actually done this, or some similar celebrity self-publicity prog?

    On the subject of celebrity authors though, how many of them actually write the stories themselves as opposed to having someone who knows what they're doing 'ghost' the story for them? It's that I object to. Apart from that objection, as you say what does it matter what else the writer is famous for if it gets kids interested in reading?

    1. I suspect there are many ghost writers out there Mike, all probably very good writers in their own respect, writing for celebs. It must be soul-destroying to have to pose as someone else to get someone to read your work! Although, better than nothing I suppose.

  4. A very interesting piece! It's not just children's fiction but the world of cookbooks has been infiltrated by celebrities too, sadly it's the laws of economics which dominate and that's just the way of the world. If I brought out a cookbook tomorrow hardly a soul would buy it but my class mate from school who is now famous has 3 books out, yet it was me who won the school prize for Home-economics! As long as people are good enough to be where they end up then that's ok but if someone has ghost written a celebrity's book then that is shameful cashing in and should really not be allowed whether it's for children or grown-ups!
    David Walliams is so good he even gets me reading and I've never been a reader as the books that my school put in front of me were so boring there really was no incentive:-) But as Jacqueline said he's famous for writing and not just a celebrity who's picked up a pen!

    1. Thanks Camilla.
      I've noticed the dearth of cookbooks too. And adult fiction - Fern Britton, Julian Clary and Alan Titchmarsh cashing it in. Which is fine - they obviously have something to say. Cookbooks though - I guess it's a way of selling more stuff.
      Commercialism is depressing isn't it/ I guess it makes the world go round and opens up the creative sphere to more folk, but it's stifling at times.

  5. As a writer myself, I'm still SO ON THE FENCE about this one. I try and be fair, truly, and not judge a book before I've read it, but honestly, once Madonna said that there were "no books" for her girl to read, so she had to write one herself I was hoping I'd never be in the same room with her or I'd have to give her a swift kick.

    Julie Andrews can WRITE. Madonna? Cannot. I just make value judgements as I go, and try not to turn other people off of celeb books... but I do mumble some and grit my teeth. ☺

  6. Madonna said that? Wow! i just lost any respect I had for her (which wasn't a lot). What a horrible thing to say - has she never READ anything? I am shocked!

    I think you are right about judging them individually. It's so difficult though - celeb writers are given so many privileges marketing-wise, where real talented writers, like yourself Tanita, have to fight for the right! I suppose this is where my problem with it really lies.


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