Picture Perfect: When Celebrities Write Children’s Books
When I was 13, Madonna released a children’s picture book, The English Roses. I wasn’t its target audience, and by this point in my early adolescence, I was already onto the adult section of the library. Yet this book utterly fascinated me. Even as that age, where my knowledge of the queen of pop’s music and image was reasonably limited, there was something about this news that intrigued and confused me. Why was the woman who snogged Britney Spears on MTV writing a kids’ book? Didn’t it seem strange to anyone else that the singer of Vogue who was obsessed with this Kabbalah thing was now the author of a cutesy illustrated book about jealous girls? This book seemed to be everywhere too. Even my local bookshop, a tiny space in the corner of town that never had anything I wanted to read, sold it. I remember wondering if anyone would have cared about The English Roses had it not been written by Madonna. A silly question, in retrospect, but one that has remained relevant in today’s publishing age.
This month, it was announced that Oscar winning actress Lupita Nyong’o would publish her own children’s book. Google ‘celebrities who write children’s books’ and you’ll see the hugely varied lineage she joins: Jim Carrey, Julie Andrews, Cara Delevingne, Chelsea Clinton, Sarah Ferguson, Julianne Moore, and even Bruce Springsteen. If you’re British, the chances are you’ve gone into a bookshop - or even your local Tesco - and seen shelves chock full of the work of David Walliams. Publishing isn’t necessarily a field you get into if your primary concern is to make lots of money - basically any other occupation would be better than that - but if you’ve already got the big name, then big profits can quickly follow.
It’s nothing new for celebrities to do well by becoming authors (or ‘authors’ with the help of a ghost-writer, as has been a problem for various YouTubers like Zoella). Some of the biggest publisher advances of the past decade and beyond have been given to celebrities for exclusive rights to their memoirs. The hubbub over Lena Dunham landing $3.5m for her book seems tame compared to the $8-10m Amy Schumer allegedly earned for her debut. Politicians can make bank from this, as can anyone with a remotely interesting story to tell. Some figures take the fiction route, to varying results. That so many are now writing for kids says a lot about that market. Young adult fiction isn’t the unstoppable juggernaut it once was, but it remains a potent field to break into, with audiences prone to intense loyalty. Middle-grade fiction has a similar power that’s oft-underrated by industry experts. Picture books never go out of style either. There’s always a demand for pretty reads that can be gifted to young children who have no idea who Madonna is or why they should care about her author status.
It makes sense for some celebrities to become writers for kids. David Walliams, as a children’s author, has the free-wheeling and manic humour needed to keep kids entertained for a couple of hundred pages, and he knows his audience well. Going from Little Britain to The Boy in the Dress was hardly a stretch. Handily, this switch gave him a chance to shift gears in his public persona. The guy whose comedy was rude, crude and frequently racist could now be a clean figure for all generations. McFly singer Tom Fletcher has branched out into kids’ books, alongside a YouTube based shift that reaches hundreds of thousands of eager fans looking for new ways to support their favourite. Former ballet dancer Darcey Bussell has a series of kids’ books about a young ballerina, which fits with everything we know about her. Brits in particular get quite sniffy about celebrities staying in their lane, so this is a handy loophole for that: New ground but familiar expectations.
That’s not a narrative that fits people like Springsteen, Moore or Madonna. What does the woman who made the Sex book have to say to a generation of young girls who’ve never heard any of her songs? For the queen of reinvention, going all matronly and family-friendly was probably as subversive as a washing-machine full of cone bras. I view this career shift in a similar way to celebrity lifestyle branding. This field, one that’s primarily dominated by women, offers new creative and business opportunities beyond the frequently limiting scope of acting or singing. As women, your career shelf life is also about half the length of a man’s, so it makes sense to spread your eggs around a few baskets: Get the book deal, the branded perfume, the tell-all memoir, the cookbook, the clothing line, and so on. Being an author suggests new shades to your persona: It implies intellect, empathy, creativity, and a strong parental pull.
In the gossip world, you can watch even the most notorious figure have their pasts completely whitewashed through the addition of a cute baby. Reporting about celebrity pregnancies and parenthood imbues those figures with inherent wisdom, and it’s no surprise so many of them bank on it. It’s not that we expect celebrities to know more about babies or stories for kids than everyone else, but the sheer visibility of their persona makes it easier to carry that message.
Getting kids to read is always a positive, but it has an undeniable effect on the industry. The Guardian wrote a piece in March of 2017 that detailed how publishers putting all their financial hopes on celebrity deals leaves other children’s authors on the fringes of their own field. Advances for celebrity books tend to be bigger in the children’s & YA market than a rising or established talent. It would be foolish to assume all of these deals were won on pure talent (although no publishing deal ever is). These books are now saturating the market in ways it can be tough to compete with if you’re not only a smaller name author but one without the marketing and publicity support of your publisher. My hometown doesn’t have a bookshop anymore. Our local Tesco sells children’s books, but other than Fletcher, Walliams and a few YouTubers or Minecraft things, the choice is slim. It’s not an ecosystem that supports a wider, more varied market.
This saturation can also have a bad effect on the reputation of children’s publishing. As a former YA blogger, I can attest to the gross stereotyping the category faced, and the stupidity of some con artists who think readers of it will accept any old dreck they’re offered. Offer children nothing but a handful of familiar faces on the TV and you’re limiting the enriching variety of literature to something that’s in no way representative of kids’ books.
It’s not a wholly awful endeavour. Many of these celebrities can offer something new to the market that it desperately needs. Nyong’o’s book will provide some much-needed stories on the issue of colourism, and her name being above the title will bring it the attention it deserves. Walliams’s debut, The Boy in the Dress, is a cheeky but surprisingly sweet tale of a boy discovering that feminine dress makes him happy. Ultimately, what celebrity ends up on your kids’ bookshelves has little to do with the tastes of the child. We buy books for the kids in our lives based on what we like more than anything else (I recently bought my cousin’s baby boy some Tintin and Paddington books because it was what I grew up reading and it felt right to make those choices). For any child who loves books, just having as many of them as possible at your disposal is enough. Forget the names, it’s about the words.