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Celebrity Authors and Children's Books

A Feature Article by Andrea L. Williams

One of the hot areas in publishing is celebrities writing fiction books for children. The results can range from the good, the bad, and the literarily pretty ugly. What appears to be in place is marketing to parents who have fond memories of a current or former star and who in turn assume this person can write a book for children. Celebrity authors whose works were published in 2004 include Henry Winkler (formerly a TV star), Thomas Kinkade (a painter), Jay Leno (Tonight show host), and Jamie Lee Curtis (actress) among others. A recent New York Times article ridicules the trend, "So far Joanne Kathleen Rowling . . . faces little serious competition . . . at least not from the celebrities who covet her celebrity and underestimate the difficulty of her art." Let's take a look at four examples and see if there is underestimation of what the audiences should demand or works that even without the luster attached to celebritydom can stand on their own merits.

Henry Winkler has a series of chapter books about a boy named Hank Zipzer. Hank is dyslexic and at times his troubles are generated from fear of being embarrassed because of his difficulty in reading. School Library Journal has described his work as, "Less dysfunctional and outrageous than Joey Pigza, Hank Zipzer is the kid next door." One of the criticisms directed to celebrity authors is that the result is frequently a vanity production. The reviewers for Winkler's Hank series comment on the humor, and the plots that are so over the top that they demand the reader hang on to the end to see how it all works out. In title #6, Holy Enchilada, Hank decides to concoct a sure fire enchilada platter for his school's multicultural food fair when visiting dignitaries from Japan will be there. He is reluctant to tell others that he can not decipher fractions and thus creates a fireball flavored concoction. The story is not simply didactic, but a genuinely funny school days tale.

Another new entry is the series The girls of Lighthouse Lane coauthored by Thomas Kinkade, who is known for his light enshrouded landscape paintings. Kinkade's artistic works have been lampooned as too light for anything close to an American physical reality so it would be imaginable that books by him will reflect a similarly sunny verbal reality. Publishers Weekly described Kinkade's literary efforts as such: "This sugarcoated modern fairy tale reflects the pastel-tinted idealism of Kinkade's paintings . . . With his chain of galleries . . . [he] has recourse to built-in channels of marketing . . . so expect healthy sales." Other than the Kinkade name and a cover with its sunny landscape style, there is nothing spectacularly noteworthy in Lizabeth's story. It appears to be a packaged literary product full of sweetness and light that may find an audience among preteens who want a bit of romance and a happier ever after feel in their reading.

Picture books have been defined as the perfect mingling between writer and illustrator where neither over (nor under)whelms its partner. Two examples from 2004 show the pleasant and unpleasant results. Leno's book, If roast beef could fly, strongly has his voice but that is of an adult comedian. The book reminds you of an extended monologue even including a handy CD. The drawings are simply a tacked on extra to what feels like a vanity production. Ironically when interviewed about why he wrote this book, Leno says a Simon & Schuster publisher suggested he do so upon hearing his homespun tales. It may have been better for that publisher to have spent more time developing the career of a noncelebrity who simply had more beginning writer talent than to showcase this work upon the public.

On a brighter note, there is another entry in the series of books by Jamie Lee Curtis about the emotions of young children. The latest entry is It's hard to be five. She works with her illustrator Laura Cornell and the result is a good blend of story with illustrations. The five year old boy in question realizes as he is growing up more self-control is expected but frequently this anthem runs supreme: "It's hard to be five. Just yelled at my brother. My mind says do one thing. My mouth says another." So while Jamie Lee Curtis is still widely known as an actress, this book succeeds without her name appeal. While novelty in and of itself can make you read one celebrity written book, there must be something substantial to make buyers buy more than that one title. Publishers should seek out new talent wherever they find it and develop it. This may result in fresh talent such as Curtis having a 2nd career or in publishers being silent when a well known person simply tells an amusing table time story. That should not be viewed as a sign that here is a fresh talent that must be foisted on the public.

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