Wednesday, May 04, 2005

To Write...Perchance To Dream

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What does Madonna -- oops, sorry, I mean Esther -- have that I don't have? What about Jerry Seinfeld? Judge Judy? Carl Reiner? Jamie Lee Curtis? Katie Couric?

Okay, besides money, and an executive parking spot or two?

Give up? These celebrities have written children's books that have been published and heavily publicized. This blogger has written children's picture book manuscripts that have not been published or heavily publicized. This blogger is somewhat envious -- not jealous; there is a difference -- of these celebrities solely for that reason.

I will introduce this topic with an article I read and feel strongly about. My next post will deal with a personal children's book manuscript story of my own.

Read this:

Critics, authors chafe as more celebrities join ranks of children's authors

By Karen MacPherson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jamie Lee Curtis wrote her first children's book in 1993, "When I Was Little: A Four-Year-Old's Memoir of Her Youth." Her latest, "It's Hard to Be Five," is No. 4 on The New York Times children's picture book best-seller list.

Ed Koch has held many jobs during his storied career: lawyer, television commentator, college professor, restaurant reviewer, congressman and mayor of New York City.

None of that prepared him for his latest title: children's book writer. With the recent release of his picture book, "Eddie: Harold's Little Brother" (Grosset & Dunlap, $16.99), the 79-year-old Koch joins the likes of Lynne Cheney, Julie Andrews, John Lithgow and Jerry Seinfeld in writing tomes for tots.

They're not the only ones. The list of celebrities writing children's books is long and growing ever more diverse, as publishers seek to fill a lucrative new niche in the children's book market. These days, all kinds of celebrities -- from movie stars to politicians to TV anchors to sports stars -- are finding new fame and fortune in children's books.

This season's list of celebrity children's books, for example, includes offerings by actress Jamie Lee Curtis, football-playing siblings Tiki and Ronde Barber, Democratic political whiz James Carville, TV personality Katie Couric and soccer star Mia Hamm.

There's even word that mobster John A. Gotti has written a children's book, "The Children of Shaolin Forest." The New York Times recently reported that lawyers had attempted for Gotti to be released on bail by informing the judge in his case that he "now prefers writing children's books to extortion and racketeering.''

If his book is published, Gotti will join a list that, over the past 20 years, has come to include comedians Bill Cosby and Jay Leno; former President Jimmy Carter; TV anchor Deborah Norville; California first lady Maria Shriver; advice maven Dr. Laura Schlessinger; Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York; director Spike Lee; movie stars Jane Seymour and John Travolta; and even Madonna.

Critical of celebrity books

There's no doubt the celebrity volumes sell well to parents and other adults dazzled by celebrity. But book critics and librarians generally disdain celebrity books as preachy and poorly written.

"Celebrity-written children's books are the worst kind of disconnect between a parent -- who is attached to a book written by a celebrity they like -- and a child, for whom that celebrity is totally meaningless," contends Anita Silvey, a noted children's book expert and author of "The 100 Best Books for Children."

Trev Jones, book review editor for School Library Journal, agrees that "most of these books are pretty bad, although it's hard to pan them all. Some of these people can write, but many can't. And there is seemingly no connection between whether they can write and whether they will get published."

Indeed, there's every sign that the celebrity children's book boom will just keep growing. There are even new, related boomlets -- children's books written by best-selling adult novelists such as Jan Karon and Michael Chabon, as well as picture books whose texts consist of songs written by people such as Judy Collins, Jerry Garcia and even Bob Dylan.

Football player brothers Tiki and Ronde Barber have penned "By My Brother's Side."

There's no mystery about why celebrities write children's books. They get to play to a new audience, earn money and media attention and perhaps revitalize a career. In addition, celebrity children's book authors often "cross-promote." In plugging her new children's book, "It's Hard to Be Five," for example, Curtis also mentioned her soon-to-be-released movie, "Christmas With the Kranks."

Many celebrities also genuinely like the idea of doing something for children. "I really enjoy the idea that a picture book is intended to be read to a child by an adult," says Curtis, a mother of two.

In her typical fashion, Madonna ignited a storm of controversy last year when she explained her reasons for becoming an author.

"I'm starting to read to my son," said the Material Girl, once famed for her sexual escapades and pointy bras. "But I couldn't believe how vapid and vacant and empty all the stories were. There's, like, no lessons. ... There's, like, no books about anything."

For Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park, such a statement just exposes Madonna's "shameful ignorance of the world of children's books."

More importantly, Madonna's remarks "insult not only those of us who dedicate our lives to writing for young people, but also those young readers who have discovered good books and funny books that they love, and then hear [her] on television saying there aren't any," added Park, who won U.S. children's literature's top award in 2002 for her novel "A Single Shard."

Jane Yolen, a prize-winning children's book author, contends that "celebrity children's books eat up all the available oxygen ... I have over 250 books out, have won a great number of awards within the field, have been given four honorary doctorates for my body of work, but have never been on 'Oprah' or spoken to Katie Couric or gotten a $100,000 advance for my work.

"I am not complaining. I do very well by the ordinary parameters of the field. But I have been thinking about getting out my pointy bra and brushing up on my singing and dancing because there's no good pop music out there. And because -- you know -- if it's celebrity they want ...''

What particularly bothers many non-celebrity authors is the notion that "anyone can write a children's book."

"The assumption is ... that it's easy. It isn't," says children's book author/illustrator Katie Davis, whose books include "Who Hops?" and "I Hate to Go to Bed!" "It takes years of hard work. It takes dedication and passion."

Davis adds that she has "very mixed feelings about books by celebrities. On the one hand, if it gets more kids reading, I'm all for it. That said, I have never met a child whose favorite book was written by a celebrity."

Publishers reap revenue

Publishers, meanwhile, defend their decisions to publish celebrity books, saying they pick only the best and that the additional revenue generated by celebrity children's books can allow publishers to do more with non-celebrity books.

"I don't like to publish a book because it's written by a celebrity," says David Gale, editorial director of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. "I do like to publish good books, and if they're written by a celebrity, it's all the better because we can get publicity that we could otherwise not get."

Gale acknowledges that celebrities often get higher advances and bigger marketing campaigns than non-celebrity children's book authors. "But that's charged against the book; it's not stopping something else from getting published or getting publicized," he says.

There's no doubt that celebrity children's books are a good financial bet for publishers. Madonna, for example, has sold more than 1 million copies of her three children's books. A fourth book, to be published next month, is expected to add to her sales.

But publishers insist that celebrity books aren't automatic moneymakers.

"A first-time book by a celebrity gets more attention than a comparable book by a first-time author, and that helps the book sell into stores," Gale says. "However, if it's not a good book, it won't sell to the customers."

To many book critics, librarians and other professionals, however, it's galling to see celebrity children's books make any money. These critics say that the greatest flaw of celebrity books is that they usually construct their stories around a message.

This runs directly counter to the best children's books, in which the "message" -- if there is one -- takes a backseat to the story.

"Because the message in celebrity books weighs more heavily than the story, even the best of them is good only for two or three readings before a child will become bored with the message," says Maria Salvadore, a Washington, D.C.-based children's literature expert.

Historical perspective

While the big wave of children's books written by celebrities has hit the bookshelves over the past five years or so, there's actually a lengthy history of such books.

Child star Shirley Temple published a series of storybooks in the 1930s, and in 1946, teenage Elizabeth Taylor wrote "Nibbles and Me," a memoir of her adventures with a pet squirrel.

Over the years, various celebrities, from Frank Sinatra to Roy Rogers, have published books for children. But these were just a tiny part of the children's book market of the time, and few -- if any -- are still in print.

Julie Andrews launched the modern era of celebrity children's books when she published "Mandy," a children's novel in 1971. Seven years later, Andrews published a second children's novel, "The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles." Both books have won kudos from critics and children and are still in print.

In 1991, Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson published a book about a heroic helicopter named "Budgie." Although the book was widely -- and deservedly -- panned, it also showed there was a market for celebrity children's books.

But most critics credit Curtis with making it fashionable -- and profitable -- to write for children. During a lull in her acting career, Curtis wrote her first children's book, "When I Was Little: A Four-Year-Old's Memoir of Her Youth," inspired by a remark by her then-4-year-old daughter.

Featuring cheerful, energetic illustrations by Laura Cornell, the picture book was published in 1993. Curtis so enjoyed her new status as a children's book author that she decided to write a second book, "Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born." Published in 1996, the book, also illustrated by Cornell, has become a classic in the adoption community.

Since then, Curtis and Cornell have published four more picture books, each of which has become a best seller. Their latest effort, "It's Hard to Be Five," is No. 4 on The New York Times children's picture book best-seller list.

Unlike most celebrity books, Curtis' books are praised by many critics, although others contend that her books are mediocre efforts that wouldn't be published if they weren't written by a star.

While these celebrity books are obviously popular with parents, Silvey, the children's book expert, wishes they weren't.

"There's nothing to be gained with reading any of them," says Silvey, a former editor of The Horn Book magazine, the bible of children's literature. Instead, Silvey counsels parents to buy books by the real "celebrities" of children's literature, such as Robert McCloskey ("Make Way for Ducklings") or Maurice Sendak ("Where the Wild Things Are").

Park, the Newbery Medalist, meanwhile, makes a "heartfelt plea" to publishers. "Every single time a child reads a poorly written book, that's time lost forever to the possibility of reading a good book," she says.

"Please, if you are going to publish celebrity books, try to see beyond the sales figures to the individual child reading that book, who depends on you to give them good books."


PsychoToddler said...


The Homestar Runner

Here is the second best.

Air Time said...

In defense celebrity authors, not all celeb children's books are bad.

OK, so Madonna steals all her material from Jewish sources (at least she credits the source in her book).

Some of Jamie Lee Curtis' books are targetted at adopted children and their families, a vastly underserved market.

Katie Couric's books are boring, and the illustrations are usually way over the top in celebrity books.

That vast majority of books in my children's bookcase are not from celeb authors, though, because celeb books are overpriced and not as good as Sandra Boynton, Nancy Carlson or Eric Carle.

I guess I should tell you that I write book summaries for an independent book store catalog and its web site, and see a lot of kids books.

D. A. Karr said...

I am a new published author of "The Adventures of Barrett: The Racehorse with Magic Shoes". I am not a celebrity, but my horse is fast becoming one. But the book is starting to sell, so it must be on the better side. Advertising is very expensive and celebrities can afford expensive ads and agents. But a good book is better than a poor one, name or not. I tried to make it a contribution to a younger person's personal experience, not just a story.