Dr. Seuss vs. Madonna: Can Celebrities Write Good Children's Books?
SEP 12, 2011
On the last Saturday before the first day of school in New York City, a children's bookstore on 18thStreet called Books of Wonder had the expectant stillness of a classroom before the bell rings. Looking out from the brightly-colored covers that lined the shelves were cats, ducks, an elephant named Babar, and—tucked into the corner of a section marked "Modern Picture Books"—the name Molly Shannon.
Shannon's picture book, Tilly the Trickster was released this month, marking the former SNL cast member's entry into an ever-expanding group of celebrities who write children's books. This fall, supermodel Tyra Banks and The Decemberists' lead singer Colin Meloy also have books for young readers coming out.
The celebrities-who-write-children's-books boom began about three decades ago, according to Wendy Lukehart, Youth Collections Coordinator at the D.C. Public Library system. Prince Charles of Wales came out with The Old Man of Lochnagar in 1980, and Jimmy Buffet and his daughter wrote The Jolly Mon in 1993. But the trend stretches back even further. In 1955, an entertainer who was a vocal coach and friend of Judy Garland published a book about Eloise, a little girl who lives at the Plaza Hotel (as the author did, apparently rent-free). For years before Eloise was published, Kay Thompson's voice had been heard on the radio, and later she had a featured role in Funny Face.Eloise has become a classic, of course, so much so that its fame has surpassed that of its celebrity creator.
It's not hard to guess why the genre has taken off.
"I mean, obviously the publishers are out to make a little money," says Marilyn Courtot, a trained librarian and founder of Children's Literature, a service that provides book reviews librarians and teachers consult when they're stocking their shelves. Celebrities snag coveted interviews on major networks, and of course, they can always count on their fan-base for support. Jamie Lee Curtis, John Lithgow, and Whoopi Goldberg have all made it onto the New York Times bestseller list for their children's books. As Nicole Deming of the Children's Book Council, a nonprofit trade association for children's publishers, put it, "They're natural publicity machines."
The success of these books inspires mixed feelings from those within the children's literature industry.
"It's more for the parents. The kids don't know who these celebrities are," said Kayla, one of the Books of Wonder employees. She walked over to the counter and to ask a colleague what he thinks of celebrity children's books. He's partial to Freckleface Strawberry, by Julianne Moore.
"Well, the illustrator is great," Kayla said.
"That's my favorite illustrator!"
"Yeah, the illustrator helps a lot."
The artwork for Moore's series was done by LeUyen Pham, who has illustrated dozens of books. The figures are lively, like the hastily drawn sketches of a child. "I think it gives an opportunity for an illustrator to rise, if an unknown illustrator is paired with a celebrity author," says Deming. For an early reader scanning the shelves, pictures would be more likely to catch the eye than Moore's name. Or Gloria Estefan's, or Dolly Parton's, or Madonna's—all among those who got into the children's literature game after having already established themselves as, say, a Latin pop sensation, a country diva, or a sex symbol.
"I mean, how many 4-year-olds know who Madonna is?" wonders Courtot.
For authors who have struggled to make a name for themselves, it can be hard to see shelves stocked with what seem to be the side projects of celebrities.
"We understand that publishers want to make money. But we do strongly believe that the really good books deserve as much attention as possible," says Rosalyn Schanzer, who has been a full-time author and illustrator of children's books since the early '90s.
Rita Williams-Garcia, who was a Newberry honoree this year and won numerous other awards for her young adult fiction, says she views most attempts by celebrities at children's literature as "book products and something less than a book itself."
When the Newberry and Caldecott awards were announced this year, Williams-Garcia expected to cheer on the winners for what had been a customary celebratory appearance on NBC's Today show. But after a decade of annual interviews, NBC turned down publicity requests from the American Library Association—which administers the awards—in favor of a sit-down with Jersey Shore star Snooki , who had come out with a book of her own.
"It's just a big thing for children's books because we don't get the same exposure as the regular market," Williams-Garcia explained. "So it was a huge disappointment and sent a large ripple through the community."
The episode brought back unpleasant memories for another author, Laura Vaccaro Seeger, whose 2007 book First the Egg won a Caldecott honor. After being invited on the Today show to talk about a book she published in 2003, Seeger was bumped for Madonna, who had just come out with The English Roses, a picture book about schoolgirls in London.
"Media and publishers are basically responding to what the public wants. Or what they think the public wants," says Seeger. But she was consoled when, shortly after her ill-fated television experience, Seeger took her kids to a bookstore and watched from a distance as a mother put Madonna's book down and bought hers—at the request of a pleading child.
Kids know what they like, which usually has little to do with what they are supposed to like. "That's why I love writing for kids. Because they're not really persuaded by the hype. They just love a good story," says Maryland-based author Margaret Meacham, who has taught children's literature and writing at Goucher College.
As for the stories of stars, "obviously some of them are not worth the paper they're written on. On the other hand, there are some who can write," says Courtot. She cited Jamie Lee Curtis and Marlo Thomas as examples. The staff at Books of Wonder liked Julie Andrews, who has penned some of her books under her married name, perhaps to disguise her celebrity. Williams-Garcia says Curtis Jackson, otherwise known as 50 Cent, has a knack for crafting young-adult literature.
But for the most part, says Schanzer, "It shows. The books are different." She and fellow non-fiction authors of young adult books can spend a year or two working on one book, seven days a week. Schanzer traveled to the Galapagos to research for her book on Charles Darwin's expedition, and consulted scholarly materials as historical references.
Moore, on the other hand, wrote the first draft of Freckleface on a place to London in the margins of her Filofax. While working on her novel, "Modelland," (due out September 13th), Trya Banks "spent so much time in libraries," she said in an interview, "When I was working on America's Next Top Model I'd leave that set and write until four o'clock in the morning. I got carpel tunnel because I type with two fingers."
Her editor at Random House, Wendy Loggia, said Banks initially came to her with an outline for the book, which "was a great jumping off point. And that's where I came in." Banks sent in her manuscript one section at a time over the course of a year and a half, keeping in touch with Loggia by sending text messages from the set of her show. "I think we were both kind of finding our way," says Loggia. "She was learning about publishing and learning about turning in a manuscript, and character development."
Indeed, writing children's literature is more challenging that it might seem. An author must use compelling structure without causing confusion; write in creative language without jumping too far ahead of young readers' vocabulary; express pain without scaring children off. Authors and librarians say that a book is as successful as its story, and where some books fail—particularly those authored by celebrities—is in their didactic attempts to teach simple lessons.
"Some people sell the elementary school kids a little bit short," says Courtot. They can be as discriminating as older readers. When Williams-Garcia writes, she tries to "respect a young person's experience and their thoughts."
"I don't really approve of anything that's dumbed down, that doesn't treat kids with respect," says Courtot, adding, "I mean, if these kids can run around pronouncing dinosaur syllables with ten names then, come on, they can read something with a little more meat to it."
When kids encounter a good book, the response is palpable. "When you share that book with children, the room goes silent, they lean in closer, they want to touch the book," says Lukehart. And, she noted, "I've seen few celebrity books that create that response."
Lukehart has come to realize that, by releasing celebrity books, children's publishers can take risks on unknown authors. It's all part of a business ecosystem that revolves as much around star-savvy parents as what makes a 6 year-old's eyes grow wide over and over again. "I'm almost more frustrated with the people buying them than the people publishing them," says Seeger.
For Williams-Garcia, celebrity books are "a nice supplementary diet. But I would certainly not like a young person to think that is all that reading has in store."