Have Celebrities Ruined Kids’ Books?

Ben Lawrence has an article in today’s Daily Telegraph which makes the arguments that not only have celebrities seriously reduced the quality of kids’ books, but they have also captured the publishing space to the detriment of competent kids’ writers.

Ben Lawrence, Commissioning Editor of the Telegraph

In the article, he says: “Long ago, when I was young, I had a vivid imagination that needed feeding. While TV shows and computer games went a little way to inspiring me, nothing shaped my thoughts like a good book. This was the 1980s, so I caught the tail end of the second golden age of children’s literature. I happily lost myself in the vivid, sometimes strange worlds of Nina Bawden, Alan Garner, Leon Garfield and Susan Cooper, while supplementing my addiction with the classics: Kenneth Grahame, E Nesbit, C S Lewis and Eve Garnett. Books build a child, and my career in writing and editing would not have evolved without them.

I was lucky: I had bookish parents, both acting as in-house curators, full of ideas of what I should (and shouldn’t) read. Yet if I were small now, I am not sure that I would have the same access to great children’s fiction. You could make the usual noises about social media and attention spans, but there are other worrying factors in regard to the 21st-century child.

First, I benefitted greatly from my local library, which had a staggering selection of books both old and new – and we all know what has happened to Britain’s libraries. There were, I remember, plenty of friendly librarians, armed with incredible knowledge and an infectious love of reading, who could make recommendations to me. In an age when primary-school teachers were less constricted by a national curriculum, we also had the luxury of “reading afternoons”: we could sit and browse the books in both the school library and the shelves which lined our classroom.

There is now also the serious problem of brand recognition. Writers today (whose average salary, in Britain, is down to £7,000 per annum) are unable to gain a foothold in the children’s market because they are being muscled out by celebrity names whose publishers can afford the most prominent slots in bookshops and supermarkets.

It never felt like such a problem in the days of JK Rowling’s reign: she, at least, was a career writer whose works – though not, I’m afraid to say, that well written – displayed a vivid imagination, and who did a great deal to get children interested in reading.

For the harried parent trying to find a book for their child, a familiar name on a bookshelf is always going to be the obvious option. The Duchess of York went first in 1989, with Budgie the Little Helicopter. But in truth, blame Madonna: 14 years later, her wafty Kabbalah nonsense, The English Roses, started a ghastly trend. Fearne Cotton’s Yoga Babies, Katie Price’s Perfect Ponies, Clare Balding’s The Girl Who Thought She Was a Dog – they all feel like cynical cash-ins.

Perhaps the most egregious example, however, is the comedian David Walliams, now the most successful children’s author in Britain. Anecdotally, I’m told by parents who’ve bought his best-selling books that they’re appalling: sub-Roald Dahl (of whom Walliams is a fan), and devoid of heart or writerly flair.

David Walliams

The only thing worse than a child deprived of books is a child immersed in bad ones. Defenders might say that at least a writer such as Walliams gets more children interested in reading, but I see no evidence that he is acting as a gateway drug to better quality gear.

All of this is heartbreaking, because there’s so much to recommend. A quick ring-round to friends and colleagues resulted in my being bombarded with names. You should mention Emma Carroll, they said. Julia Copus is brilliant, said another. MG Leonard, Ross Montgomery, Nadia Shireen, SF Said, Katherine Rundell, Jenny McLachlan… Yet with the exception of Rundell, I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t heard of any of them (even if, not having any children of my own, I have a reasonable excuse).

It was enough proof to me that children’s literature is as strong now as it was 40 years ago when I was young. So: enough is enough. It is time to attempt to end the depressing monopoly of a small selection of not-very-talented writers. A concert pianist never achieves success by being mediocre, so why should a children’s author?

There is, I admit, a slight air of nostra culpa here. Children’s fiction has always been the Cinderella of the book world, and we journalists need to work much harder in highlighting works for children. As the children’s author and scriptwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce argued persuasively on Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday, newspapers run plenty of restaurant reviews, featuring swanky places that 99.9 per cent of the population are never going to actually visit. Books, on the other hand, are comparatively cheap, and even cheaper if they’re loaned or shared.

So I’m going to make a pledge. From January, we will review a new book by a children’s author once a week. It could be a picture book for younger readers, a novel for pre-teens, or perhaps some Young Adult fiction. It could be a book by an established (professional) author, or a debut by someone brilliant and unknown. What you won’t see, I promise, is anything by a non-writer who is pushing larger talents out of the way in order to extend their personal brand.”

It seems to me that publishers bear some responsibility for this situation. They certainly know what a good quality children’s book is. To favour a celebrity brand-builder, who offers a short-term sugar rush of poor quality sales, over a professional author, who offers long-term sales to happy customers, is making bad business decisions.

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