Thursday, 6 April 2017

The thorny subject of celebrities writing children's books - Again! Is there a way to pick through the minefield? A ReadItTorial

Once again the subject of celebrities writing children's books has reared its ugly head - mostly due to a marked increase in deals being done with everyone from comedians and sports stars to 'Reality TV stars' all taking a look at Mr Walliams' success and fancying a slice of that very rich pie for themselves.

We've reviewed many 'Sleb' books in the past, but there's probably an equal number that we've gone out of our way to avoid. In fact it's fair to say that there's also an equal number that we actually don't get sent, purely because the anticipated sales are high enough that perhaps publishers don't think mere book bloggers need to be involved to promote such books, they'll figuratively walk off the shelves quite happily enough without any need for us to tweet or blog about them.

Right there is the nub you see. Celebrity books, no matter how utterly dreadful they are from a critical / book lover perspective - do sell, and sell in their droves. Publishers are in business after all, and why on earth would you turn down the prospect of publishing something that's more or less guaranteed to sell?

Debates were raging on Twitter about celebrity-penned books and are still raging on now. Most authors seem to feel that celebrity deals aren't necessarily a good thing, though ghost writers and illustrators may also counter-argue that celebrity deals bring them a vital extra revenue stream, irrespective of the perceived quality of said book.

Frustrated and talented novices waiting in the wings to find out whether their latest manuscripts pass muster might feel more put out that fame is seen as an automatic golden ticket to a book deal.

Seemingly, you don't even need to be that 'big' a name. Merely being associated with a popular TV show, being a bit controversial perhaps, or being someone who regularly flashes your knickers or pants at the paparazzi seems to be all the qualification you need to court favour with a large publisher.

Well-meaning heartfelt press releases accompanying these titles would lead you to believe that most of the celebrity mums or dads "who are doing it because their own kids have loved their stories so much" really truly occupy their spare time dreaming up new characters, plots, and story worlds with all the veracity and enthusiasm that any other author would. But sometimes you read stuff like that as a book blogger and can't help but snort derisively.

There's also a debate around whether such books are actually any good for kids. I think it's fair to say that David Walliams was a talented comedy writer and performer long before he hit the big time through Little Britain and other popular TV shows, and if anything most of his books are well written, funny and imaginative, though they really do tap into the gaping hole left by Roald Dahl, a nice niche to get yourself into if you can manage it.

The last couple of years in particular, there seems to have been a marked increase in the numbers of celebrity books and accompanying anecdotal evidence to suggest that these books have a beneficial effect on the children's publishing market, perhaps bringing in readers who would otherwise not be that interested in books - but also (and this is more important than you think) actually waking the press up to the fact that there is such a thing as a blossoming children's publishing industry in the first place (it seems to be one of the few things that ever gets a newspaper's attention, let alone ensuring coverage by the BBC).

We hear so many times that celebrities do a brilliant job of penning earnest and well-meaning tales of underdogs winning their way to the top of their chosen direction in life, inspirational inclusive titles with mighty girl heroines, fabulously imaginative tales of amateur sports stars fighting adversity and 'making a go of it' just like the sports celebrities themselves may have done.

Great work raising the profile of children's books and the importance of producing inspirational books isn't to be overlooked, but there's always a natural suspicion that again this shuts out other authors who may have far more experience of writing about important issues but just don't have that dazzling glitz of fame about them.

The other thing that keeps clamouring to be heard at the back of my mind is the pattern that a lot of these books have. It's obvious that the old adage "Write what you know" holds true in many cases, but there have been times when we've read a new 'sleb' book thinking that the thing just comes across as some massive ego massaging exercise, and if you really don't like the person (for whatever reason) in the first place, how could you possible like a story that feels like it's ripped from the pages of their own life story? Are children's books the new autobiographies?

To us booky folk and to a great many kids, most authors and illustrators working in children's books today are celebrities in their own right so does the notion of a 'celebrity book' now encompass folk who have become celebrities through their own writing or artistic skills?

Things have radically changed, particularly in the last 30 years or so, now authors can expect to have a far higher public profile than ever before - and the many book events that occur during the year have now propelled many authors and artists to the sort of mega-stardom that celebrities in other mediums enjoy (though, as one author sagely pointed out to me recently, not always the sort of pay, alas!)

We always do our level best to assess every book we receive for review on its own merits rather than getting too bogged down with any opinions on the writer. Despite this, the recurring pattern for celebrity books is often that even the very best of the best are merely 'OK', never mind-blowingly fantastic. Some have hit the Book of the Week slot - quite often because they've obviously had a very good editor, ghost writer or they've been coupled with a dream of an illustrator who manages to pull their story into respectable shape but there's clearly a very noticeable quality gap, and the concern still exists that celebrities mistakenly think that writing for children is an easy gig.

Meanwhile though, it's blatantly obvious that this isn't a trend that's going to go away any time soon. Sorry to say that publishers know very well when they're on to a good thing, and I'll wager the only sore point for them is that more celebrities aren't showing an interest in penning their own tales for children. It is very easy to see why a lot of folk snub these books though, and that's also not a trend that's going to change either.

If you'd love to join the debate, catch us on Twitter (@readitdaddy) or drop a comment below. We're always interested in hearing from as many folk as possible on this subject.