From ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell to the duchess previously known as Meghan Markle, many a celebrity believes they have that special sparkle: look, they too have written a children’s book! Through tales of pirates or park benches, dancing bears and daring wenches, boys’ adventures and talking frogs, the famous believe they can connect with sprogs. Some try to be wise, some serious, many are boring, a few mysterious. But if Dr Seuss still sets the bar, are these books any good, or has this trend gone too far?
By the late 1990s, the first signs of what would turn into an unstoppable flood of books from celebrities were discernible. John Travolta published a weird short fable about flying, Propeller One-Way Night Coach, in 1997; fellow actor Jamie Lee Curtis kicked off a 25-year career as an enthusiastic children’s author with When I Was Little (1993); and Madonna took a break from pop hits to release The English Roses in 2003, about friendship and jealousy among young girls.
None of them could have foreseen the situation three decades later. The kids’ market is saturated with celebrity offerings, mostly picture books, sometimes ghostwritten and often expertly illustrated, from chefs (Jamie Oliver: Billy and the Giant Adventure) to sports stars (Serena Williams: The Adventures of Qai Qai) and rappers (Ludacris: Daddy and Me and the Rhyme to Be).
The celebrity kids’ book has become the 2020s version of the beauty brand or the packaged memoir — only more attractive. It guarantees favourable publicity, extends the celebrity brand to a younger audience, allows the famous to soak up the benefits of authorship with little of the hard grind, and adds a touch of wholesome appeal to authors as disparate as rock legend Keith Richards and politician George Galloway.
Publishers love this trend. Celebrities have massive followings and slick publicity teams. Their books often become bestsellers. A few writers, from the actors Channing Tatum (his Sparkella books, about self-esteem, are fabulous) and Reese Witherspoon (Busy Betty, a romp about a girl trying to bathe her smelly dog) to comedian Seth Meyers’ I’m Not Scared, You’re Scared, about a nervy bear, are actually good fun.
But the majority of celeb offerings run the gamut from banal to mediocre, coming off like vanity projects. The anonymous reviewers at Kirkus Reviews, a respected trade publication, are, like me, underwhelmed: American comedian Jimmy Fallon’s Your Baby’s First Word Will Be Dada “fails to be funny”; news anchor Hoda Kotb’s You Are My Happy was “yet another celebrity picture book that will steal sales from far, far better ones”.
I got through about 30 celebrity picture books before running up the white flag. Generic themes, clunky storytelling — these books would not stand up to a second reading, essential for a genre where children love to demand, “Read it again!” Have both publishers and famous authors forgotten how hard, and rewarding, it is to write successfully — beyond sales figures — for this most testing of audiences?
“Children are demanding,” the late E B White, author of such classics as Charlotte’s Web, told The Paris Review in 1969. “They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth.” More recently, Rick Riordan, author of the fabulous Percy Jackson mythologies, wrote: “It would be a mistake to ‘write down’ to kids. They hate that. They want to be treated like intelligent and sophisticated readers.”
I love what Sally Gardner, whose books from Maggot Moon to I, Coriander have won multiple awards, said in an interview: “When I write for small children, I’m very much a small person writing for small children. When I write for YA, I’m very much on the side of a young adult. I’m not on the side of their parents.”
This is the key to writing books that will remain loved through the years — and despite the massive press that celebrity picture books generate, it’s telling that few of these efforts make the lists of the most loved children’s books of the past few decades. I can understand the temptation for celebrities and publishers to keep the pot boiling — it is parents who buy these books, and nostalgia is a bottomless well.
Though celebrities are a glamorous lobby, too many write for kids only as a hobby. It is not that hard to turn a rhyme. But to write well for children, you also need originality, skill and time. Publishers could extricate themselves from this pickle — if they’d slow the flood to a trickle.
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