Once Upon A Time

November 4th, 2006

Celebrities as authors of childrens’ books — and so successful they are too!

For true snarky attitude toward same, that no one could do so well as a member of the British literary critical community (and I intend this in the best of ways!), I’ve quoted a sample from the article.

As to why They Do It:

“But the most plausible explanation, I think, is this: “I’ve been making up bedtime stories for my children and suddenly I’ve had a brainwave. These stories are good! These stories are brilliant! I would be failing in my moral duty to my adoring public if I did not put them down on paper.

“If my theory holds true, it is scary, because it suggests that celebrities believe the hype about their own abilities.”

The Result:

” … Well, if you are looking for the next Beatrix Potter or Maurice Sendak, you will not find it here (Sendak is top of the Times list, but he is looking rather beleaguered). As Anita Silvey, author of 100 Best Books for Children, puts it: “Celebrity books are one of the great negative features of children’s publishing in the 21st century. If I were still a publisher, as I used to be, none of these manuscripts would make it past my slush pile.”

Egregious Characteristics:

“Rule one: why use simple names for characters when you can invent fanciful and, frankly, ridiculous ones? The celeb authors probably think they are being Dickensian, but they just come across like Salman Rushdie on one of his flowery days. Madonna stands out in this regard. Meet the English Roses’ new teacher, Miss Fluffernutter. If that doesn’t convince you of the author’s creative prowess, eight pages later we are introduced to Candy Darling (yes, we know, Andy Warhol’s chum) and Bunny Love (that’s more obscure, but Google does turn up a video of a flesh-and-blood rabbit trying to mate with a cuddly toy). And we’ll pass over the four brothers, Timmy, Terry, Taffy and Tricky.

Rule two: make sure you have a moral point to make, and ram it home to your young readers. At risk of sounding like a literary stalker, Madonna leads the pack here yet again. “The next time you start to feel jealous of someone, try to feel happy for them instead. Good things will come your way, too.” And: “You can’t just love your friends when they are nice to you. That’s when it’s easy. You have to love them when they are being complete dorks, too.”

My Personal Favorite Snark:

Noelle’s Treasure Tale by Gloria Estefan

They don’t come worse than this. It’s hard enough getting beyond the cover, which bills the story as “A new magically mysterious adventure”. What kind of grammar is that? It’s always a mistake to write in verse if you are incompetent as a writer. And this verse is truly, truly awful. It is a challenge to find the most clunky rhymes, but try this one: “Glaring under some brush like two marbles they shone/ eyes that stared at Noelle like a dog at a bone.” That is Estefan’s description of a cat.”

You get the idea!

Love, C.

12 Responses to “Once Upon A Time”

  1. Theoon 05 Nov 2006 at 10:59 am

    I find this quote from Ms. Silvey to be strange on so many levels: “If I were still a publisher, as I used to be, none of these manuscripts would make it past my slush pile.”

    Yeah, right! Madonna sends a manuscript to the slush pile? Really? She doesn’t have a contact or two that she might be able to slip her little beauty to? Madonna thing isn’t going to be addressed to “Dear Editor (name misspelled).”

    Fact is that a celebrity name will sell the book. Lots of folks will love it, and a heck of a lot of them with look upon Miss Fluffernutter with a kind fondness usually only reserved for marshmallow and peanut butter on Wonder bread dipped in warm Ovaltine. (Kids haven’t been indoctrinated in the whole SFF Naming Characters Rulz, so the name of that character is actually going to sound quite whimsical and fun to the vast majority of them.)

    Regardless of its quality, and Ms. Silvey would be a poor business person/publisher to turn it down (and hopefully she’d be a competent enough publisher to have a good copyeditor on staff to pull the thing up to snuff). Besides, publishing Madonna’s thing might pay the bills with enough profit to take a risk on two or three manuscripts that she might not have been able to before.

    For all the celebs who do it poorly, there are a couple who do it well. My kids loved Dom DeLuise’s versions of The Ugly Duckling (Charlie the Caterpillar) and Goldilocks, and I didn’t mind reading them a hundred times.

    I won’t go into the matter of celebrity proselytizing. I wonder how many times Madonna’s made someone feel like a dork?

  2. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 05 Nov 2006 at 12:23 pm

    What about when it goes the other way around? Ally Sheedy was published as children’s book author (at twelve, I might add) before going on to brat-pack fame (and post-brat-pack B-list status).

    Then there are celebrities who do know how to write. Jerry Seinfeld did his Halloween monologue for years before he was approached by Byron Preiss who thought it would make a successful children’s book, to be bought by Seinfeld fans but also actually enjoyed by kids. And one of the most successful children’s books of all time, Eloise, was based directly on Kay Thompson’s one-woman show of the same name.

    Then there are the chidren’s books written for adults. I remember Bette Midler doing “Baby Divine,” which was likely not purchased for many children but was purchased by at least adult Midler fan I knew.

    And “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids”?  That was based on one of Bill Cosby’s old comedy routines as well.

    I think the rule seems to be that comedians and actors are a bit better at it than singers, but I’m certain there’s some counterexample for that too.

  3. Constance Ashon 05 Nov 2006 at 1:27 pm

    The Eloise books are mentioned, with favor, in the article. What the author of the article might respond with might be something on the lines of: Eloise was written long before juvenile fiction lines became the Really Big Publishing Business they are today. The writers had a genuine urge to create a work, rather than extend their name recognition ™ franchise into the publishing powerhouse that kids’ lit has become.

    Because, previous to Harry Potter, the juvie lines were persistent in trade publishing, but they did nowhere the business they do now that the boomers made their children their primary lifestyle projects, starting at the end of the 80’s and the early 90’s. (I was working in publishing at one of the few still standing trade houses during that era and saw the transistion happen, btw.)

    In the earlier decades, kids’ and ya literature was a mainstay, of course, but the business basically stayed flat, going neither up nor down much, depending mostly on the star-studded back list of ‘classics,’ with the largest purchasers being schools and libraries. This is why there were no best seller lists published and tracked in places like the NY Times, because, until then, the numbers just weren’t there.

    In a lot of circles it’s become the thing: upper lifestyle woman gets tired of the grind of balancing parenting with her highpowered job, leaves to be full-time mom, but keeps her intellectual cred by her ambition to write and / or illustrate children’s books. I’m just sayin’, yanno — reporting, not judging.

    In the meantime, speaking of authentic and wonderful classic kids’ literature, the new movie of Charlotte’s Web is going to be released at Christmas this year. It looks wonderful. Dakota Fanning, who is currently filming the role of Lyra for the His Dark Materials / Golden Compass project, plays the little girl.

    You can see trailers and photos here; an article about the making of the film can be found here.

    So, even without a Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter movie this holiday season, we do have something wonderful and magical to look forward to!

    Love, C.

  4. Lois Tiltonon 05 Nov 2006 at 3:59 pm

    Sorry, Charlie …

  5. Constance Ashon 05 Nov 2006 at 4:24 pm

    Lois — Wha?

    Love, C.

  6. Sherwood Smithon 05 Nov 2006 at 4:46 pm

    Celeb: I have this wonderful idea for a kiddie book. It’s about The Little [Handicapped] Animal Who Learns a Lesson.

    Editor: Oh, how cute! I’ve never actually done kiddie books, but how hard can it be? Your idea is darling, and it teaches a very good lesson. Your name should guarantee millions of sales–do you need a ghost writer? How is a quarter million advance? Sorry it can’t be more–publishing is a very small business compared to film and TV.

    *Segue a year*

    *Remainder tables full of copies of the latest little animal who learns to solve its problem…*

  7. Constance Ashon 05 Nov 2006 at 6:05 pm

    Sherwood — You are EviLe.

    I mean that in the best way, of course.

    Love, C.

  8. Lois Tiltonon 05 Nov 2006 at 8:38 pm

    “Sorry Charlie, we don’t want good books, we want books that sell good.”

    Celebrity names sell good.

  9. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 05 Nov 2006 at 9:13 pm

    Hmm, well, Eloise as I understand was pretty big in its day, with dolls and toys and merchandizing tie-ins and even a tv special before Kay Thompson decided she didn’t like any of it except for the original book and refused to license any of it. Which certainly is artistic integrity, but I feel sorry for her illustrator/partner.

    I did go and read the original article, but it seemed to mix damning with faint praise with praising with faint damn. Jamie Lee Curtis got high marks–and she’s been doing this for years–and Julie Andrews likewise got high marks (and she’s likewise been doing this for years). About the only author who got roundly panned is Gloria Estefan. Even Madonna got a thumbs up from the child who was asked about her book (but had less enthusiasm for Madonna’s dancing), and the prose criticism of Madonna for using the word “spiffy”? Is this a British thing, one of those horrid Americanisms that simply shan’t be said in polite company? I certainly won’t turn handsprings over the sample sentence from Madonna, but we’ve certainly all read far worse, and in published books too–and I’m not talking about Gloria Estafan’s either. If this is the worst example the critic can find, Madonna must be doing pretty well.

    I’m also thinking that the singer/songwriter/actor/playwright celebrity children’s books probably stack up pretty well when compared to the vaguely touched on subject of royalty celebrity kids books (thank you, Fergie) and the untouched subject of first lady kiddie books. I remember my mother going on about the huge advance Barbara Bush got for her “Millie the Dog” book. Anyone ever cracked that? And even then…it’s a fact that Lynne Cheney was a published novelist before she ever became a vice first lady. I don’t think it outside the realm of possibility that her kids books are in fact readable.

    Of course her first novel was about lesbians of the purple sage. I’d love to see that as a kids book, especially in the style of Sarah, Plain and Tall.

  10. Sherwood Smithon 05 Nov 2006 at 9:35 pm

    Constance: *g*

  11. tchernabyeloon 06 Nov 2006 at 6:10 am

    Uh, I think the point about “spiffy” is that it’s actually something Americans think we Brits say. For one thing, the word is actually “spiffing”, and for another, its use pretty much went out in the 30s/40s.

    Of course, we Brits have our own disasters when trying to portray American slang (or accents), so it works both ways.

    I would hazard a guess that what Anita Silvey meant about the slush pile was that if these manuscripts came in to the slush from an unknown author, they would have been junked. In other words, they are only selling because of the celebrity name.

    That this is happening in the field of children’s books is hardly surprising, given the multitude of other fields that celebrities are using in their quest to brand themselves for maximum exposure before the Next Big Star comes along.

  12. Constance Ashon 06 Nov 2006 at 12:29 pm

    Juvie Lit isn’t my primary interest by a long shot, so I’d assumed that Anita Silvey was British, since the UK Guardian is a British publication, and, certainly, most of the critics and writers are British — though, yes, some recognizable North American writers are found in the Book Review, like Margaret Atwood.

    But no, she appears to be from the U.S. Which explains her mis-use of ‘spiffy.’ Here is her website — she’s been editor for years at the Horne Book, a venerable publication of juvenile literature, much depended on by schools and libraries. She’s been an editor at major trades, etc. All her working life has been in the field, one way and another.

    Love, C.

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