Thursday, March 15, 2007

Celebrity Authors! Who’s Hot! Who’s Not!

by Kittenpie

It is often remarked in children’s literature circles that everyone thinks they can write books for kids. They’re shorter, they’re for kids, it must be easy, right? No. Really, there’s a knack and a sensibility that is not possessed by everyone – even people who know and love children. And the proliferation of books for kids published by celebrities in recent years only goes to prove it. There are hits, a couple of people who get it right, and there are most certainly misses – those who are clearly riding on star power alone. So unless you are willing to preview every one, what to do? Avoid them altogether? Take your chances? Read on, I’ll give you the goods on a few of the famous to avoid, and a few who are worth a try.

Katie Couric
The Brand-New Kid
The Blue-Ribbon Day

She’s peppy and earnest on television. She’s peppy and earnest on paper. But way more annoying, too. Yes, the situations she takes on are worth talking about. But she’s not subtle. And yes, it’s nice to try to talk about things like ostracized classmates and not making the team without being a total downer. But I’m not sure bouncy verse is the way to go, either. Especially when the rhymes and meter are a mite strained. I don’t dislike Katie (although her makeup artist pisses me off with the dark lipstick he keeps unsuccessfully putting on her). I think she’s got a great heart and wants to do good things. I just think well-meaning does not translate into well-executed in this case.

The English Roses
Lotsa de Casha
Yakov and the Seven Thieves
Mr. Peabody’s Apples

Let me put it this way: these books are designed to teach five key lessons of Kabbalah to children through stories. Yup. It is rare that a book can survive such intent without being crippled under the weight of the message – and these ones don’t manage it (hell, Madonna never made a name for herself being subtle, now, did she?). To be fair, the artist do their level best to add charm, with gorgeous nostalgic Americana for the small-town story (Peabody’s Apples), jaunty, sassy sketches for the sassy girls (The English Roses), lovely Eastern-European-influenced paintings for Yakov, and a renaissance feel for the tale of a rich merchant (Lotsa de Casha, which, to be honest, I couldn’t even finish, it was so bad and even further mutilated by a hideous attempt at an Italian accent applieda throughouta). I think it’s lovely and softening that The Big M is all maternal and spiritual and stuff now, but this should not be the result. A children’s album, perhaps? Madge knows from music, after all, but a writer she is not.

Jamie Lee Curtis
When I Was Little: A Four-Year-Old’s Memoir of Her Youth
Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born
Today I Feel Silly: & Other Moods That Make My Day
Where Do Balloons Go?: An Uplifting Mystery
I’m Gonna Like Me: Letting Off a Little Self-Esteem
It’s Hard To Be Five: Learning to Work My Control Panel
Is There Really a Human Race?

To put it up front: I like a few of these, while a few are middling. Her first outing was a fun and slightly silly look at the ways in which you’ve grown up by the time you are four. Next came Tell Me Again, a sweet and sometimes funny remembrance of the excitement adoptive parents feel about the birth of their long-awaited child. This one particularly has a warm and familiar feel without straying into the sappy – it’s clear from the telling that the tale is well-worn and much told. I also enjoyed the imaginative questions of Where Do Balloons Go? and found Curtis in tune with the sort of things that might make a child happy or grumpy in Today I Feel Silly. I’m Gonna Like Me does avoid the trap of being earnest and instructive when tackling self-esteem, although it is a hard subject to make a great book about, so my reaction is pretty much, “Enh.” I’m less impressed with Hard to Be Five and last fall’s Human Race, but will cut her some slack and hope it’s just a little slump given that she seems, for the most part, to be on a good wavelength for this.

Billy Crystal
I Already Know I Love You
Grandpa’s Little One

I would love for Billy Crystal to be a great entry. He’s funny, I like goofy kids’ books, maybe it could work… Or not so much. Problem is, Billy’s tuning into his sappy side and while this might appeal to some parents and grandparents (but not me – I like to keep my blood sugar balanced), it’s really not for kids. (Also the metre in the second one doesn’t really work, which annoys me.)

John Lithgow
The Remarkable Farkle McBride
Marsupial Sue
I’m a Manatee

One of the less splashy and publicized authors in the group is turning out to be one of the few who really do it well. It may be a distinct advantage that he is a comedian, and a particularly goofy one at that. It certainly helps that he started out singing for kids and writing his own songs. This sideline of his was well-received even before he started turning to books, so his ability to connect with kids was pretty clear. Indeed, two of the books are songs, and include musical scores and CDs of him singing them. These are both cute and well-orchestrated– particularly Marsupial Sue, which has a slight and rather amusing oom-pah sound to it. I’m a Manatee is really fun on CD, too, but it doesn’t seem to translate onto paper quite as well. I am also fond of the story of Farkle McBride, which has a quick rhythm and reminds me somewhat of one of my old favourites, The Fabulous Song, by Don Gilmore (out of print, but available at the library), though far more hyperactive.

Jay Leno
If Roast Beef Could Fly
Please don’t make me write about this. Let me just say that the library didn’t even buy it, and if you want to see it, go look in a remainders store, where they all live now.

These books and more are available through your local Toronto Public Library!


A career Children’s Librarian, kittenpie has worked in library systems in both New York and Toronto, and delights in sharing favourite books with kids of all ages. Settled back in Toronto, she now brings work home to read to her own little Pumpkinpie.


MotherBumper said...

How is it possible that Katie Couric is more annoying on paper? I didn't think that was possible but I'm going to take your word for it. As per Lithgow, I got B "Micawber" and didn't even realize until I got to the end that he wrote it. I'm a sucker for squirrel stories and that is one of the better tales. I also agree that Madonna's attempts are completely crushed by the message. Thanks for the heads up Kittenpie.

metro mama said...

Thanks Kittenpie. Now I'm off to TPL's lovely online system.

Her Bad Mother said...

I had no idea about Katie Couric or Lithgow writing children's books. Madonna, feh.

Mamalooper said...

Writing books is one of those skills/talents that everyone seems to think they have just because they can write. And childrens' books too - hey, they aren't too long, how hard can that be?????

Maybe the Madonna books will come with an H&M pair of sunglasses from her new range there.

Think I'll stick to the classic books - Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, here I come...