Are celebrity kids’ books bad for literature?

Chelsea midfielder - and children's author - Frank Lampard. Picture: Getty
Chelsea midfielder - and children's author - Frank Lampard. Picture: Getty
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CHELSEA footballer Frank Lampard is the latest celebrity to publish a children’s book. But is the trend doing long-term damage to the quality of children’s literature, asks Fiona MacGregor

ONCE upon a time, in a land where dreams really could come true (as long as you were famous enough and somebody thought they could make money from it), a clever PR fairy cast a magic spell and turned a footballer into a best-selling children’s author. Back in the real world, time has yet to tell if Chelsea and England star Frank Lampard’s tale of a little boy – named Frankie, funnily enough – and his magic football truly will become a bestseller. Our 11-year-old reviewer liked the football theme and with another four titles already planned in the adventure series, publishers Little Brown are certainly confident, but even the most ardent Chelsea fan will have to admit that Lampard ain’t no JK Rowling.

Published this week, just days after outgoing Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson of Gruffalo fame condemned the British media for not taking children’s literature seriously enough, does Frankie’s Magic Football mark a growing trend for celebrity “writers” which could be doing long-term damage to the quality of children’s books?

However much Lampard, and every other would-be author wishes to be shot straight into literature’s premier league, good writing, like good football, requires huge amounts of hard work. One might think that is stating the obvious, but if it’s obvious to the rest of us, many celebrity “authors” remain happily oblivious.

Unfortunately, as Donaldson pointed out, so few children’s book receive proper reviews that unless you’re Katie Price (Perfect Ponies) or Sarah Ferguson (Budgie The Little Helicopter) in which case you’ll get slated regardless, many celebrities’ books go straight on to be bestsellers without anyone considering the consequence.

Of course celebrities, like anyone else, can be multi-talented in the most surprising of ways. Everyone laughed at Victoria Beckham’s ambition to become a fashion designer, and now Hollywood actresses fight to wear her dresses. Those of us who will always think of him as the bumbling Prince Regent in Blackadder remain a little perplexed by Hugh Laurie’s recent incarnation as a blues musician, yet his hugely successful debut album and live performances have gained consistently respectable reviews.

But while Beckham (despite the odd nasty rumour) really does design her own dresses – around her own body it was recently revealed – and it’s Laurie’s own gravelly voice singing the blues, Lampard admits openly that he did not actually write most of Frankie’s Magic Football.

“I couldn’t, to be honest, finish a complete book. It’s very difficult for me to write a kids’ book. I basically have the characters that I’ve come up with and the storylines, so once I get through that, I normally write a whole list of the story and where it goes, then at the end I sit down with (editor) Mike and he will help me with how you put it together,” the footballer said in a recent interview. Asked if he wrote any words, Lampard replied: “Yeah, bits of it,” before going on to add: “I would love to get to the stage where I can write the whole book myself.”

Donaldson, one of the country’s bestselling authors and the third most borrowed writer from the UK’s libraries last year, is not surprised Lampard struggled. “Writing for children is not easy. In some ways children are probably harder to please than adults and there are so many excellent children’s writers out there who in terms of style, plot and characterisation are just as good as any writer for adults. Maybe if there was more serious coverage and analysis of children’s books by expert reviewers, instead of just the little round-ups you usually get in the papers which mention plots lines or just say (something such as) ‘buy this book if your son likes football,’ then it might be taken more seriously. People wouldn’t think it was so easy. That’s not to say that just because someone is famous they can’t necessarily write a good children’s book. David Walliams is a great example, but he (was already) a script-writer and not just a celebrity who’s asked to write a book,” she concludes.

Walliams’ stories certainly seem to have captured the hearts of the literati as well as those of small children across the land. “His books now sell phenomenally well, from Ratburger to Mr Stink and The Boy in the Dress, and win prizes too,” says Charlotte Williams, who reports on children’s news for The Bookseller magazine. “I think that Walliams’ success shows that titles by a celebrity can work best when they are authentic and quirky, rather than being treated as being seen to be a means to boost a celebrity’s profile.”

But Williams recognises there’s a growing demand within the industry for celebrity authors for financial reasons above all else. “There has been a real trend towards celebrity publishing over recent years, and I think publishers always keep one eye open for sports or showbiz stars that might appeal to children or their parents. If the fit is right, then the potential for sales is huge,” she says. “Also, as the retail environment has got tougher for books, publishers are looking for more ways to connect authors and readers themselves. If the author is already well known, with lots of followers on social media and a natural performer at school or festival events, then that can be a big help.”

Williams says there is a definite concern within the industry that celebrity authors could mean new voices aren’t getting book deals, or that other titles are not picking up reviews or attention in bookshops, but she believes talent will continue to win out. “Publishers want a balanced list of titles that appeal to a range of readers,” she says.

Award-winning author and columnist Terence Blacker writes for adults and young readers. He believes the “huge trend” for celebrity writers does affect other children’s authors. “Promotion is everything in modern publishing and celebrities bring their own audience and visibility. It’s reached children’s book publishing later than elsewhere and, of course, makes it more difficult for writers who are just writers to be published. The temptation for publishers is to put marketing before content and that’s never good.”

The author of the Ms Wiz series adds: “There are undoubted positives – boys who wouldn’t dream of buying a novel will buy Frank Lampard’s ghosted books. On the other hand, if the books are no good, the new readers may not pick up a book ever again.”

And then there’s the question of celebrity values as well as celebrity style. Later this month TV presenter Holly Willoughby and her sister, Kelly, will see the first book in their stage-school-set series published, First Term at L’Etoile. According to their publisher Orion: “These glittering, glamorous stories of drama, dance, midnight feasts and makeovers – they’re a pleasure to read, reminiscent of all those heart-warming school stories that have engaged readers for generations, but with Holly and Kelly’s own very distinct voice and style.”

Glamour? Makeovers? Starry ambition? Darrell and the rest of the wholesome pupils of Malory Towers would have some stern lessons to teach the Willoughby girls (whose publicist is, presumably, referencing Enid Blyton’s boarding school series).

With the review copy of Frankie’s Magic Football was also sent a book aimed at slightly older children called The Land of Stories. The novel, set in a place where fairytales come true, is by Chris Colfer, an actor from the TV series Glee. Opening it at a random page, there’s a description of a grandmother and her “signature shoes.”

Now it’s good to see depictions of well-dressed older women alongside wicked witches and couthy crones in children’s literature, but the casually commercial tone of the description seemed oddly out of place in a fairytale. “The danger is that celebrities (and their ghost writers) are not really thinking about the content – what’s selling the book isn’t quality, style or imaginative power but the fame of its author. The effect on writing – and what publishers accept – can be disastrous,” warns Blacker. But ultimately he has faith in young readers to know what they want: “Children are never fooled. If a book is bad, they’ll give it up – however big the celebrity behind it.”

And Williams agrees, suggesting young readers have the power to choose which books will become successful in the long run. “Loved children’s book characters can become celebrities in their own right, attracting dedicated fans who will follow their every move – Harry Potter, the Gruffalo, Peter Rabbit and so on – and meaning there is always value in publishers acquiring completely fresh talent,” she says.

There is then at least some hope for those authors whose true skills are displayed with the pen rather than in the penalty box.

Celebrity tales

PRINCE CHARLES

Perhaps the original celebrity children’s writer, his book, The Old Man of Lochnagar, was sold in aid of the Princes Trust. It tells the story of an old man who lives in a cave near Balmoral where Charles spent many of his summers and first came up with the idea for the book while entertaining his younger brothers, Andrew and Edward. The heir to the throne even took to the screens to read it on 1980s TV favourite Jackanory.

WHOOPI GOLDBERG

Her fiesty on-screen characters wouldn’t have made Goldberg the obvious candidate to write a series of books about “Sugar Plum Ballerinas”, but these are not ordinary sweet little ballerinas. The series introduces six girls from different backgrounds who attend a ballet school in Harlem. “I’ve tried to describe all the strong girls and women that I know and bring the best of them to these characters,” Goldberg has said.

BOB DYLAN

Written during the height of his Christian period, Man Gave Names to All the Animals first appeared as a whimsical song on Dylan’s 1979 album Slow Train Coming. Illustrator Jim Arnosky went on to create a picture book adaptation featuring more than 170 animals plus a CD of Dylan’s original recording.

JAMIE LEE CURTIS

Whether starring opposite Arnie in True Lies or John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda, Curtis knows how to put on a memorable performance. She also knows how to write memorable children’s books. Now on her 10th children’s book along with illustrator Laura Cornell, the #1 New York Times bestselling team’s latest work, My Brave Year of Firsts, celebrates the extraordinary, everyday bravery of trying new things for the very first time.