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Published: 10/31/2004

Celebrities' latest starring role: Author of children's books

By KAREN MacPHERSON

BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU

Ed Koch has held many jobs during his storied career: lawyer, television commentator, college professor, restaurant reviewer, U.S. congressman, and mayor of New York City.

Now he's got an unlikely new title: children's book writer. With the recent release of his picture book, Eddie: Harold's Little Brother' (Grosset & Dunlap, $16.99), the 79-year-old Mr. Koch joins the likes of Lynne Cheney, Julie Andrews, John Lithgow, and Jerry Seinfeld in writing tomes for tots.

They're not the only ones. The list of celebrities writing kids' books is long and growing ever more diverse, as publishers seek to fill a lucrative new niche in the children's book market. These days, it seems that all kinds of celebrities - from movie stars to politicians to TV anchors to sports stars - are finding new fame and fortune in children's books.

This season's list of celebrity children's books, for example, includes offerings by actress Jamie Lee Curtis, football-playing siblings Tiki and Ronde Barber, Democratic political whiz James Carville, TV personality Katie Couric, and soccer star Mia Hamm.

These celebrities join a list that, over the past 20 years, has come to include all kinds of people: comedians Bill Cosby and Jay Leno; former President Jimmy Carter; TV anchor Deborah Norville; California First Lady Maria Shriver; advice maven Dr. Laura Schlessinger; Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York; director Spike Lee, and movie stars Jane Seymour, John Travolta and Madonna.

Critics and librarians generally disdain these celebrity books as preachy and poorly written. "Celebrity-written children's books are the worst kind of disconnect between a parent -who is attached to a book written by a celebrity they like - and a child, for whom that celebrity is totally meaningless,'' contends Anita Silvey, a noted children's book expert and author of The 100 Best Books for Children.

Trev Jones, book review editor for School Library Journal, agrees that "most of these books are pretty bad, although it's hard to pan them all. Some of these people can write, but many can't. And there is seemingly no connection between whether they can write and whether they will get published.''

Indeed, there's every sign that the celebrity children's book boom will just keep getting bigger. There are even new, related boomlets - children's books written by bestselling adult novelists like Jan Karon and Michael Chabon, as well as picture books whose texts consist of songs written by people like Judy Colins, Jerry Garcia, and even Bob Dylan.

Like it or not, "it's clear that the trend of children's books written by celebrities is here to stay,'' says Maria Salvadore, a children's liberature expert.

There's no mystery about why celebrities like to write children's books. They get to play to a new audience, earn money and media attention, and perhaps revitalize a flagging career.

In addition, celebrity children's book authors often "cross-promote.'' In plugging her new children's book, It's Hard to Be Five, for example, Ms. Curtis also mentioned her soon-to-be-released movie, Christmas with the Kranks.

Many celebrities also genuinely like the idea of doing something for children. "I really enjoy the idea that a picture book is intended to be read to a child by an adult,'' says Curtis, a mother of two children. She also jokes: "I am a tremendously immature adult. Without question, I can get into the mind of a child because I am one.''

In her typical fashion, Madonna ignited a storm of controversy last year when she explained her reasons for becoming a children's book writer.

"I'm starting to read to my son,'' said the "Material Girl,'' once famed for her sexual escapades and pointy bras. "But I couldn't believe how vapid and vacant and empty all the stories were. There's, like, no lessons . There's, like, no books about anything.''

For Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park, such a statement just exposes Madonna's "shameful ignorance of the world of children's books.''

More importantly, Madonna's remarks "insult not only those of us who dedicate our lives to writing for young people, but also those young readers who have discovered good books and funny books that they love, and then hear (her) on television saying there aren't any,'' added Ms. Park, who won U.S. children's literature's top award in 2002 for her novel, The Single Shard.

Jane Yolen, a prize-winning children's book author, contends that "celebrity children's books eat up all the available oxygen . I have over 250 books out, have won a great number of awards within the field, have been given four honorary doctorates for my body of work, but have never been on Oprah or spoken to Katie Couric or gotten a $100,000 advance for my work.

"This is a data point,'' Ms. Yolen added. "I am not complaining. I do very well by the ordinary parameters of the field. But I have been thinking about getting out my pointy bra and brushing up on my singing and dancing because there's no good pop music out there. And because - you know - if it's celebrity they want ''

What particularly bothers many non-celebrity authors is the notion that "anyone can write a children's book,'' particularly a picture book for preschoolers, which usually has a limited amount of text.

"The assumption is that it's easy. It isn't,'' says children's book author/illustrator Katie Davis, whose books include Who Hops? and I Hate to Go to Bed! "It takes years of hard work. It takes dedication and passion.''

Ms. Davis adds that she has "very mixed feelings about books by celebrities. On the one hand, if it gets more kids reading, I'm all for it. That said, I have never met a child whose favorite book was written by a celebrity.''

Publishers, meanwhile, defend their decisions to publish celebrity books, saying they pick only the best from numerous offerings. In addition, the additional revenue generated by celebrity children's books can allow publishers to do more with non-celebrity books, industry officials say.

"I don't like to publish a book because it's written by a celebrity,'' says David Gale, editorial director of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. "I do like to publish good books, and if they're written by a celebrity, it's all the better because we can get publicity that we could otherwise not get.''

Mr. Gale acknowledges that celebrities often get higher advances and bigger marketing campaigns than non-celebrity children's book authors. "But that's charged against the book; it's not stopping something else from getting published or getting publicized,'' he says.

"In fact, I think the opposite is true in that the revenue generated by any successful book pays for books (written) by developing talent.''

There's no doubt that celebrity children's books are a good financial bet for publishers. Madonna, for example, has sold more than one million copies of her three children's books. A fourth book, to be published next month, is expected to further add to her sales.

In fact, a look at the latest New York Times children's bestsellers' list shows numerous books by celebrities. Despite this record, publishers insist that celebrity books aren't automatic moneymakers.

"A first-time book by a celebrity gets more attention than a comparable book by a first-time author, and that helps the book sell into stores,'' Mr. Gale says. "However, if it's not a good book, it won't sell to the customers . If you've printed books that aren't selling, you're not making money.''

To many book critics, librarians and other professionals, however, it's galling to see celebrity children's books make any money at all. They argue that celebrity books are just the kind of sentimental, lesson-filled books that well-meaning adults believe children should read - not the kind of books that children actually like to read.

The greatest flaw of celebrity books, these critics say, is that they usually construct their stories around a message, such as how to make a new friend, how to deal with the death of a grandparent, etc. This runs directly counter to the best children's books, in which the "message'' - if there is one - takes a backseat to the story, critics and librarians say.

"Because the message in celebrity books weighs more heavily than the story, even the best of them is good only for two or three readings before a child will become bored with the message,'' Ms. Salvadore says.

While the big wave of children's books written by celebrities has hit the bookshelves over the past five years or so, there's actually a fairly lengthy history of such books.

Leonard S. Marcus, a children's literature critic and historian, points out that Hans Christian Anderson, for example, was widely known in Denmark in the 1830's for his adult books before he published his classic fairytales.

One hundred years later, child star Shirley Temple published a series of storybooks and, in 1946, the teen-aged Elizabeth Taylor wrote Nibbles and Me, a memoir of her adventures with a pet squirrel. The book was recently re-released by Simon & Schuster.

Over the years since then, various celebrities, from Frank Sinatra to Roy Rogers, have published books for children. But these celebrity books were just a tiny part of the children's book market of the time, and few, if any, are still in print.

Actress Julie Andrews launched the modern era of celebrity children's books when she published Mandy, a children's novel in 1971. Seven years later, Ms. Andrews published a second children's novel, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. Both books have won kudos from critics and children and are still in print.

In 1991, Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson published a book about heroic helicopter named Budgie. Although the book was widely, and deservedly, panned, it also showed there was a market for celebrity children's books.

But most critics credit Curtis with making it fashionable - and profitable - to write for kids. During a lull in her acting career, Ms. Curtis wrote her first children's book, When I Was Little: A Four-Year-Old's Memoir of Her Youth, inspired by a remark by her then-4-year-old daughter.

Featuring cheerful, energetic illustrations by Laura Cornell, the picture book was published in 1993. Ms. Curtis so enjoyed her new status as a children's book author that she decided to write a second book, Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born. Published in 1996, the book, also illustrated by Ms. Cornell, has become a classic in the adoption community.

Since then, the team of Curtis and Cornell has published four more picture books, each of which has become a bestseller. Their latest effort, It's Hard to Be Five, currently is No. 4 on the New York Times children's picture book bestseller list.

Unlike most celebrity books, Curtis' books are praised by many critics, although others contend that her books generally are mediocre efforts that wouldn't be published if they weren't written by a Hollywood star.

But the books are wildly popular with parents. All told, Curtis has sold more than three million picture books over the past decade, and her success has kicked off the current craze for celebrity children's books.

While these celebrity books are obviously popular with parents, Ms. Silvey, the children's book expert, wishes they weren't.

"There's nothing to be gained with reading any of them,'' says Ms. Silvey, a former editor of The Horn Book, the "Bible'' of children's literature. Instead, Ms. Silvey counsels parents to buy books by the real "celebrities'' of the children's book field, like Robert McCloskey (Make Way for Ducklings) or Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are).

Ms. Park, the Newbery Medalist, meanwhile, makes a "heartfelt plea'' to publishers. "Every single time a child reads a poorly-written book, that's time lost forever to the possibility of reading a good book,'' she says.

"Please, if you are going to publish celebrity books, try to see beyond the sales figures to the individual child reading that book, who depends on you to give them good books.''



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