There’s not much point in discussing celebrity children’s books without discussing the money piece of the issue.
Let’s face it, publishers, who are the really guilty parties in all this, are all about the bottom line. This was less true when I came into the market than it is today. Children’s publishers, big and small, used to be primarily about creating quality literature for young readers. In that model, the school and library markets were king. Today, publishing has swung away from that. Now it’s about bottom lines, branding, searching for the next blockbuster, and replacing English lit graduates with MBAs. Yes, there are small publishers still committed to producing quality work for children, but they are fewer in number. In today’s model, mega-publishing groups decide on whether or not to keep a book in print based on sales and warehouse space. Forget backlist. Their eyes are on what’s new, what’s hot, and what’s not goes the way of the dinosaur.
In this new market, the prospect of having a celebrity book on their list is very attractive. A celebrity author brings with him a built-in marketing machine. News outlets are eager to cover any and everything a celebrity does. Daytime and late night talk shows jump on board to parade them out, and publishers are greedy for projects that can generate that kind of publicity. Meanwhile, the average children’s book author has no prayer of competing with that. Never mind that our work actually deserves such attention. Sigh…
There are, of course, other inequities that crop up where celebrity authors are concerned. I once listened to an editor bemoaning the difficulty of trying to edit a celebrity book, often having to do the rewrites herself. She longed for the days I was one of her authors. “No problem,” I said. “Just pay me what you’re paying HER, and I’ll be happy to give you another of my manuscripts to work on.” Well, as you might imagine, that was the end of that conversation.
The sad fact is that celebrities garner figures that most authors can only dream of. And yes, my cup of envy runneth over. But my dismay over this status quo is not just an issue of sour grapes. Every time one of these celebrity books bombs, every other author on the list suffers too because the marketing dollars invested in promoting the star book meant a thinner slice of the marketing pie for the rest of us. If the celebrity book succeeds, the celebrity and the publishers do well. If, however, the celebrity book fails, we all feel the pinch come time for our next contract negotiation because there’s less money in the coffers to acquire new manuscripts, let alone to promote them.
There’s another aspect of the money issue that irks me. When I started in this business, I had to accept the low advance of a first-time author. Over time, as I created a track record, my advances grew, as they should. Now, after having honed my craft for 30+ years, winning a respectable number of awards along the way, I have to bite my tongue when some celebrity steps off of the silver screen and is handed a check for at lest ten times what I’m paid, and for inferior work, at that! Sorry, but this moves me out of my happy place. There. I’ve said it.
Finally, there’s the Oprah Factor. Yes, you’ve heard of it. Every time I have a new book released, someone says to me, “You need to go on Oprah,” or “Oprah will call you one of these days. You just wait,” to which I respond, “Yes, well…” And I let my voice trail off.
As most of us know, Oprah does not promote children’s book or young adult authors, unless they are celebrities, or better yet, celebrity friends. The rest of us need not apply.
I get that Oprah’s unfamiliar with the children’s market rank and file, or even the “stars” of the field. Still, how about starting with Newbery winners? Coretta Scott King winners? Caldecott winners? Printz winners? I’m just saying.
I know I’m just whistling Dixie, but a girl can dream, right?
I keep hoping the celebrity children’s book phase will run its course. Now, I’m not so sure. I would say wake me up when it’s over, but I don’t feel like sleeping that long.
I must confess, I’m particularly annoyed by African American celebrities who jump into the children’s book fray because “there are no books for our children,” to which I respond, Huh? Spike Lee made such a claim in a year when I, alone, had five books published. So, I take it he is not only unaware of my contributions to the field over the last 30-plus years, but has also missed out on the substantial catalog of books by Angela Johnson, Pat and Fred McKissack, the Pinkney clan (Andrea, Gloria, Sandra), Tonya Bolden, Sharon Flake, Jerdine Nolen, Carole Boston Weatherford, Wade and Cheryl Hudson, Julius Lester, Walter Dean Myers, Rita Williams-Garcia, Eloise Greenfield, Virginia Hamilton, and so on, and so on. Then there are the host of award-winning illustrators who have brought black books to life: Tom Feelings, Kadir Nelson, George Ford, Eric Velasquez, R. Gregory Christie, Bryan Collier, Jan Spivey Gilchrist, Javaka Steptoe, E.B. Lewis, Brian Pinkney, Myles C. Pinkney, and Caldecott winner Jerry Pinkney, and so on, and so on.
To be sure, there is room in the market for many more authors and illustrators of color. And one can certainly harp on the fact that too few black books make the featured wall in the children’s section of, say, Barnes and Noble—which is a rant for another day. But to say that there are no books featuring African American children means that these celebrities have failed to do their homework! Their loudly spoken assertions constitute a slap in the face for those of us African American authors and illustrators who have long toiled in the field. Shame on them!
What do I think about celebrity children’s book authors? The answer goes under the heading of “things that make me crazy.” Where do I begin? Let’s start with qualifications or, more to the point the lack thereof.
For the most part, the celebrities who attempt to pen books for children have no experience in doing so. They have taken no courses, attended no workshops, or earned any degrees in children’s literature. Most, I’ll wager, are unaware that degrees in children’s literature even exist. Most have little or no experience in writing, period, whether for adults or children. They have invested zero time in researching the field or in working with children. In point of fact, the only connection they seem to have to children’s literature is a) having once been a child who read children’s books, b) having once given birth to a child and, c) having read a handful of children’s books as adults. Excuse me, but that in no way qualifies them to create well-crafted books for young readers.
The problem with celebrity children’s books is that much of the work is overly simplistic, lacking in imagination, or age-inappropriate. Many are all three. There are exceptions. Jamie Lee Curtis and Debbie Allen come to mind. Ms. Allen worked with one of my editors, so I have some sense of the level of commitment she brings to her titles, and her willingness to do rewrites until she gets a manuscript right. But again, among celebrity authors, she is rare.
Of course, as irritated as I get at the very thought of celebrity wannabe authors slapping on the title as though they have a genuine right to it, I am no less miffed that virtually everyone I meet thinks that writing a children’s book is easy as A,B,C. What does know-how, craftsmanship, imagination, education, or experience—not to mention talent—have to do with it? Mind you, if I were to suggest that since I’m an avid film buff, and have worked in amateur theater in my youth, I am prepared to star in the next blockbuster movie and be paid top dollar for my efforts, everyone would laugh. Or how about I go and operate on someone in the hospital? After all, I’ve seen a slew of medical dramas, read articles on medical breakthroughs, plus I’ve been sick a time or two myself. That should qualify me to practice medicine, yes?
Fine. Maybe that example is too extreme. Let’s say I hang out a carpenter’s shingle. I know what good fortune looks like and I can handle a hammer and nails. I even transformed an antique wooden soda bottle crate into an end table, once. That’s got to count as substantial experience, no? NO.
I respect tradesmen and craftspeople, and professionals of every stripe who have invested study, hardy work, and practice honing their skills in order to earn the right to their titles. But celebrities who wake up one day and decide to dash something off and slap on the title “author”? Don’t get me started.
Oh, wait! Too late.