Sunday, 26 March 2017

FROM YOUR EDITOR Celebrity children's books *sigh*



Flanimals by Ricky Gervais, illustrated by Rob Steen
Few things rub the community of children’s writers up the wrong way more than the announcement of yet another celebrity putting their name to a children’s book. Words & Pictures Co-editor, Claire Watts, considers the debate.






We children’s writers strive to produce fabulous stories, spend years on research, fortunes on courses and reference books and retreats before we even get to the hideous process of trying to get agents and publishers to agree to take a look … and meanwhile publishers pursue some celebrity who does minimal work – none at all if they use a ghost writer – with open arms and huge advances.

Chris Hoy's name is the only one that appears on his Flying Fergus series, but he's been open about using a ghostwriter, Joanna Nadin. Illustrations by Clare Elsom

The truly galling thing, of course, is that celebrity children’s books perpetuate the idea that dashing off a quick children’s book is something anyone can do. That children’s books are somehow lesser than other books. It’s the attitude that all of us children’s writers encounter every time someone says, ‘When are you going to write an adult book?’ It’s there in Mark Gatiss’s throwaway response when people complained that the last season of Sherlock was too complicated: ‘Go and read a children’s book with hard pages if you don’t want to be challenged.’ And this week, in Scarlett Thomas’s toe-curling piece for The Guardian where she tells the reader that though children’s books can never be considered to have any literary merit, writing one was jolly good fun because you get to indulge in completely over the top writing and we should all definitely read hers.


Whoopi Goldberg is the author of a series called Sugar Plum Ballerinas. Illustrations by Maryn Roos

The other side of the story

Here’s the thing though. Most books bought for children are bought by adults. Now of course, there are adults like you and me who are invested in the world of children’s literature. We’re up with all the latest releases, we know who wins prizes and we await new releases from our faves with bated breath. When we need to buy a child a present, we relish the prospect of a trip to a bookshop to discover the perfect book.

Julian Clary's The Bolds, illustrated by David Roberts
But most adult buyers of children’s books are not like us. A celebrity name on a book or a film or toy tie-in may be the only reason that the present they choose for a child is a book rather than a toy. It may be the only book that person will ever buy. But that book could be the start of a child’s love of books.

We’re right to think of celebrity books as different from the books we write. They draw a lot of attention, certainly, and they soak up a good bit of publishers’ marketing budget. But bear in mind that publishers view them as something different too. Ask yourself how long a celebrity book will last? How many exist in a publisher’s reliable backlist? How many celebrity books do publishers put up for prizes?

Madonna's The English Roses, published in 2003, and illustrated by Jeffrey Fulvimari




And sometimes it works. Children's writers sighed when Walliams produced his first children's book, but he's proved himself more than just another celebrity name. Illustrations by Tony Ross

Think of these books as bait. Children grow up and – hard though it is to imagine – most people grow out of children’s books. Publishers need to attract new child readers constantly. If one child is lured into reading by an adult buying them a book with a celebrity name on the cover, that’s a victory for children’s books. Those high advances, that massive marketing budget, think of them as an investment in children’s books in general.

I have to admit though, I’m still struggling to imagine who is going to buy a children’s book by George Galloway.

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 Claire Watts is Co-editor of Words & Pictures. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter and her blog.


9 comments:

  1. Yes, celebrity books should be thought of as bait. And if the celebrities REALLY CARED about children's authors and kidlit culture, each celebrity should be required to read at least two dozen (non-celeb) books in their genre then every book should come with a list of recommendations. Then celebrity books would genuinely be helping us all (and we would praise them instead of feel oppressed by them). Editors? Please?

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  2. I like that idea, Candy; a list of recommended books and authors might well lead adult purchasers, as well as kids, toward some terrific books. I would add only one caveat to these (alas) fantasy requirements: No celebrity could recommend more than ONE other celebrity book.

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  3. That only works if the books are good. Some of them just....aren't.

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  4. What do these celebs contribute to the industry they have joined? Book reviews and recommendations, school visits, support of other writers, support of libraries, speaking out in favour of reading for pleasure? They appear at big literary festivals but I've heard that some cancel if their booked audience isn't big enough for their ego. It's no wonder so many children's authors are disgruntled by the parachuting in of celebs who have neither served their apprenticeship or contribute to the wider community. If only they would step up they could be an asset to our industry instead of taking all the advances, publicity and marketing budgets and not putting anything back.

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  5. I'm sure some of these books do lure children to reading. On the other hand, there are so many celebrity books these days that I'm sure it's possible for kids to read only those and nothing else!

    I feel sorry for unpublished and mid-list authors trying to launch commercial fiction series (i.e. the type that don't win awards). They are being crowded out by these celebrity "brand extension" books.

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  6. Are children (under 12s)lured by celebrity? I think it's unimaginative parents/ grandparents who need educating.

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  7. Such a hot topic....it would be great if all front covers of celeb books acknowledged the ghost or co writers. Surely as long as the celeb name is there to sell the books it can only be a good thing for everyone if due recognition was given......can't it?

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