‘Everyone has a book in them’ – but why do so many celebs think they make great children’s writers?
Anyone remember the much-beloved children’s literary classic, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles? No? Perhaps you have fond memories of long winter evenings with your children, snuggled up with hot cocoa and a well-thumbed copy of Propeller One-Way Night Coach: A Fable for All Ages?
e neither. These are just two of the eminently forgettable titles penned over the years for the children’s market by Hollywood actors – Julie Andrews wrote the first in 1974, one of a series of books for young readers that remain in print to this day, though you’d be hard pressed to stumble on a copy at your local Waterstones.
As for Propeller One-Way Night Coach, the aviation-themed adventure was John Travolta’s literary gift to children everywhere. Back in 2013 he threatened to turn the book – which received lukewarm-to-cold reviews – into a movie, though the project was indefinitely shelved. Travolta’s side hustle as yarn spinner for young readers quickly frayed and was soon forgotten.
Everyone, the maxim goes, has a book in them. While that might be true, there’s no guarantee it’s a good book. Yet what separates international superstars from other aspiring writers is that they have a ready-made audience. It’s something publishers, precedent shows, are only too keen to
Arguably this year’s most high-profile launch in children’s publishing was The Bench, the debut release from Meghan Markle, aka The Duchess of Sussex. The week of its release, the book became the UK’s best-selling picture book. But did the quality of the content warrant the sales figures?
In The New York Times, a reviewer’s attempt to give the story a generous reading felt effortful. And despite a willingness to engage with the good intention of the story, the review nonetheless concluded Markle’s habit of “force-feeding words into unlikely configurations to eke out a tortured rhyme, works about as well as stuffing a foot into a too-small glass slipper and passing it off as a perfect fit”. Ouch.
The trend of celebrities writing children’s books has been around a long time. But it seems to be on the rise. Just this year Reese Witherspoon, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Fallon, Serena Williams, Jennifer Lopez, Kevin Jonas, and Mariah Carey all released books for kids.
A publishing contract, it seems, is fast-becoming an indispensable accessory in A-List circles. But what motivates all these artists and sportspeople, dazzlingly successful in their own fields, to turn their hand to writing picture books?
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So many do so rather than take up other creative callings, such as painting or sculpture. For Ireland’s Laureate na nÓg Áine Ní Ghlinn the impulse is perfectly understandable, and is driven in most cases by a person’s “love for their children or their grandchildren”.
“If people are reading stories for children constantly and suddenly they get a really good idea for a story, that’s valid,” she says, “though provided it is well edited and beautifully produced. Very often the editing is most important. If you have a really good editor, that can make it work.”
However, according to Elaina Ryan, CEO of Children’s Books Ireland – an organisation that promotes literacy and shares a passion for children’s literature across the nation – enthusiasm for storytelling can only take you so far.
“That kind of naivety that comes with the nostalgia of having loved books as a child, or maybe told stories to your own children,” she says does not guarantee a person has a talent for writing.
“I think that goes for celebrities and non-celebrities. There are a lot of aspiring authors out there who have their own kids, they tell them stories, and then they decide they want to do something more with them. That’s a universal thing.
“But what celebrities have that normal people don’t is a route to market and an audience, so oftentimes publishers will capitalise on that. Publishers have a certain business model as well – they have to have big things they know are going to sell so they can take a risk on debut authors.”
Several critics have observed some celebrity writers might sell well, but apart from perhaps David Walliams, none have penned books that endure over time, or become contemporary classics.
Having an amateur knack for improv at bedtime “is not always a magic formula”, says Ryan. “Of course your own children love your stories. They’re not a neutral testing ground.”
For some stars, a sense of nostalgia and a desire to revisit their own childhood may feature. Mariah Carey’s book The Christmas Princess is frankly autobiographical. In it the narrator addresses a little girl named Mariah who, despite being an isolated and lonely child, learns to discover that she is “worthy of all the attention, love, protection, care, conditioner, and fancy dresses in the whole wide world”.
Busy Betty, by Reese Witherspoon – patron saint of self-determining women in Hollywood – is about a little blonde girl big on ambition, creativity and drive who stops at nothing to realise her dreams.
But a closer look at the output of many household names suggests there’s something more didactic going on than just a love of storytelling and that many celebrity authors are motivated by the desire to instruct as much as entertain.
Julianne Moore’s series Freckleface Strawberry details the travails of a little girl who must learn self-acceptance to make peace with her appearance, even though she’s often teased by other children.
In Natalie Portman’s Fables, her intention is an even more explicit teaching moment. Positioning herself as a modern Aesop, she spins the traditional morality tales into lessons about inclusivity, gender equality and eco-consciousness.
Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o features a young girl who wishes her black skin was lighter. The heroine of Channing Tatum’s The One and Only Sparkella is mocked by her classmates for her glittery clothes, until she learns how to be herself. Through the mist of feel-good storytelling, one moralistic theme dominates: developing intrinsic self-esteem is a much-laboured message in this genre. This overt messaging is a risky strategy, according to Ryan.
“Children can smell a message a mile off,” she says. “Oftentimes you will get someone coming out with a message about believing in yourself or something around that, and it’s just very heavy-handed.”
Most professional children’s authors, whether they write juggernaut bestsellers or niche, lesser-known stories, apply tireless labour and great skill to producing books for young readers. And while the aim, above all, is enjoyment and fun, there is, rightly, a certain solemnity among purveyors and promoters of children’s literature about the importance of the work.
It would be like me saying, I think I’m going to become a plumber tomorrow
A really good children’s story wields a mythic power to shape individual lives, to instil values and habits in impressionable young minds. A beloved childhood book becomes a building block in the construction of a person’s interior life.
For the best stories, the ones that become classics, this power endures over generations. So the most well-known writers spare no effort in getting it right. It’s no fluke that Julia Donaldson’s books (that include The Gruffalo), are runaway hits; listening to her describe the painstaking process of revisions and edits she goes through before she’ll consider a story ready to be released into the wild is exhausting.
For a celebrity to launch themselves into a career writing for children in this context can seem a lot like hubris. More than just entertainment, children’s literature plays an important social, cultural and developmental function – a responsibility that stars of untested literary talent insert themselves into at their peril.
“It would be like me saying, I think I’m going to become a plumber tomorrow,” says Ní Ghlinn, “and I’ll read up on it and I think, yes, I’m going to do all my own repairs. Maybe I’ll survive, but I can’t expect to go out and become a wonderful plumber.”
It’s for this reason that many authors have voiced their complaints about the proliferation of sports, pop and film stars hogging precious real-estate on the tables and shelves of local bookstores. They complain that big-name releases monopolise marketing budgets, and nudge out work by lesser-known authors who are producing work of higher quality in relative obscurity.
Says Ní Ghlinn: “I do feel that sometimes books by celebrities end up poorly edited, they will not be treasured. They are a short-term phenomenon, they’re for sales and little else. Occasionally we’ll get a really good one – and I welcome any good books. But there are times when I do feel that it’s just about money, rather than the creation of a really good book for a child.”
In her role as Children’s Laureate, and as an author of Irish Language stories, Ní Ghlinn has been outspoken in particular about the problem of visibility for storytellers writing in Irish. Many writers in the genre, she says, are shrouded by an invisibility cloak. And a market bias toward the most visible of authors, regardless of their track record or the quality of their work, compounds this issue.
She complains of the struggle to get her books displayed on shelves, even though they sell very well, because of a bias against Irish language books.
“The root of the problem is a little bit of goodwill, a little bit of effort to lift the invisibility cloak. Because if you make something visible, and people see it then they at least have the choice. If it’s not visible, there’s no choice,” she says.
Books by celebrity authors often perform well commercially. Markle’s The Bench was a No 1 New York Times Bestseller. Jimmy Fallon boasts five books that topped that list. Most books with a megastar name attached can be counted on to shift copies. But this phenomenon owes more to parents’ buying habits than children’s reading habits.
“Adults are the gatekeepers. For most children, until they hit the teenage years, they’re not picking their own books. It kind of only matters that the celebrities are celebrities to their parents,” Ryan says.
“Generally kids might have a favourite book and not know who the author is. So personality and the person behind the book is not really as visible to young children as it is to adults.”
However, Michael Finucane, co-founder of Independent bookstore Chapters, (chaptersbookstore.com) defends the market logic because “the profits generated by sales of books by celebrity authors can be reinvested into the development of new authors. Any vehicle that puts a book in a child’s hands is a good thing.”
He seems confident that, on the ground, a quality story will always triumph over star power and hype.
“There is a balance between the celebrity author and the more traditional author. It really comes down to whether the book is good or not.” The Bench, he observes, “really didn’t get a huge response from our customer base. Our customer base is focused on Irish authors and classics of children literature.”
Parents who buy books by famous authors should take care, he says, to seek advice on the quality of the writing and illustrations, as well as making sure, first and foremost, they are choosing books that align with their child’s own interests and quirks. Advice on this can be found by speaking to the experts – sales staff in quality book shops, and librarians, or by consulting online resources like the Children’s Books Ireland (childrensbooksireland.ie).
“The biggest mistake a new children’s author can make is to underestimate how sophisticated their reader can be,” says Finucane. “The kids know a good book from a bad book.”
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/everyone-has-a-book-in-them-but-why-do-so-many-celebs-think-they-make-great-childrens-writers-42283581.html ‘Everyone has a book in them’ – but why do so many celebs think they make great children’s writers?