My kids are past the picture book stage these days but in my capacity as a children’s lit expert, I still haunt the children’s section of the bookstore. And it seems to me that these days the main qualification for writing a children’s book is celebrity. Not literary celebrity, mind you. The books I see displayed most prominently are by actors, singers, TV anchors, politicians — celebrities. Will Smith. LeAnn Rimes. Jimmy and Amy Carter. Even Dom DeLuise and Naomi Judd have gotten in on the action. Not to mention Ed Koch and John Travolta, Judge Judy and Sarah The Duchess of York Ferguson.
It’s not surprising, really. Who among us hasn’t, after the 127th reading of Goodnight Moon or Where the Wild Things Are thought we could write a children’s book, too? Perhaps not a classic, like those, but surely I could do better than Mattie and Cataragus (briefly Nick’s favorite). Having children exposes us, all at once, to a world of literature we’d forgotten or never considered: picture books, board books, alphabet books, read-alouds and rhyming books. And the deceptive simplicity of children’s books can be, well, deceiving: they don’t have many words, the stories are simple, the messages uncomplicated. Who couldn’t write one?
Well, actually, Madonna. To be fair, she did write not just one but five stories with a beginning, middle, and end. Her sentences have nouns and verbs. And her publisher did track down a talented illustrator for each one. But the stories are clichéd, the messages bonk-on-the-head obvious, and the writing itself is hardly captivating. And that goes for many (though not all) of the celebrity-authored children’s books I’ve explored. It’s hard to imagine most will last beyond the flash-in-the-pan popularity of their authors.
And yet the trend continues. When I started researching children’s books authored by celebrities my list quickly ran to 30 authors, and that was in 2001 — long before Madonna or Billy Crystal entered the list. And the numbers are growing. Why do they do it? What’s in it for them?
Having lost Madonna’s phone number, I can only speculate as to her reasons. But I think it’s simple: Apart from the deceptive simplicity of writing for children, few pleasures are as enticing to a parent as the ability to entertain a child. And because most celebrities are entertainers, by nature and by profession, it’s not surprising that once they have their own children or grandchildren they suddenly see a whole new audience.
So what’s the problem? Why shouldn’t Jerry Seinfeld try to make his kids laugh, and ours, too, while he’s at it? The problem is that successful entertainment for adults is a different beast entirely from successful entertainment for children. But while most celebrities understand that basic principle (Madonna didn’t write Sex for Kids, after all), they seem not to be quite sure where the difference lies, or what exactly does entertain a child. So they do what many amateur writers do: they abandon entertainment and, instead, try to teach a lesson, impart a philosophy, or send a message.
No one can argue that children’s books should never include messages. But is it really necessary to say, for example, that pretty people can be nice, too, or that death may not be the end, or that grandparents love you even before you’re born? Sam Goldwyn’s famous comment that messages should be sent only by Western Union applies double to children’s books, which will be read over and over and with a kind of attention most authors for adults can only dream of garnering. The real message of a good book for kids is that it’s fun to read, that other people have stories worth telling, that a book is a good companion. No need to say it: the reading aloud embodies it. Overstressing a message tells the child reader implicitly that she’s not smart enough to figure it out for herself, or — worse! — that books are like medicine, only valuable for their curative properties. So Dr. Laura teaches us about self-control in the toy store, and Maria Shriver about the loss of a grandparent, and Katie Couric about accepting difference — and any potential for entertainment is lost in the didacticism of the text.
Of course, if they’re truly bad books, they won’t sell — right? Yeah, like no one goes to see bad movies. Name recognition does wonders for book sales, particularly when we’re not sure how to judge books for kids. In my perfect universe, the required parenting classes we would all take before having children would include, along with the breastfeeding advice and the promise of an on-call doula, a few tips on choosing books for kids. Keep it simple, go for great illustrations, and skip the message. If we follow those guidelines, we’ll stop buying celebrity books, and the money-hungry publishers will need to turn to something else — quality, maybe? — to line their pockets.