Everyone from Tyra Banks to Dolly Parton to Terrell Owens has published a kids' book. How do they compare to the true classics of the genre?
On the last Saturday before the first day of school in New York City, a children's bookstore on 18th Street called Books of Wonder had the expectant stillness of a classroom before the bell rings. Looking out from the brightly-colored covers that lined the shelves were cats, ducks, an elephant named Babar, and—tucked into the corner of a section marked "Modern Picture Books"—the name Molly Shannon.
Shannon's picture book, Tilly the Trickster was released this month, marking the former SNL cast member's entry into an ever-expanding group of celebrities who write children's books. This fall, supermodel Tyra Banks and The Decemberists' lead singer Colin Meloy also have books for young readers coming out.
The celebrities-who-write-children's-books boom began about three decades ago, according to Wendy Lukehart, Youth Collections Coordinator at the D.C. Public Library system. Prince Charles of Wales came out with The Old Man of Lochnagar in 1980, and Jimmy Buffet and his daughter wrote The Jolly Mon in 1993. But the trend stretches back even further. In 1955, an entertainer who was a vocal coach and friend of Judy Garland published a book about Eloise, a little girl who lives at the Plaza Hotel (as the author did, apparently rent-free). For years before Eloise was published, Kay Thompson's voice had been heard on the radio, and later she had a featured role in Funny Face. Eloise has become a classic, of course, so much so that its fame has surpassed that of its celebrity creator.
It's not hard to guess why the genre has taken off.
"I mean, obviously the publishers are out to make a little money," says Marilyn Courtot, a trained librarian and founder of Children's Literature, a service that provides book reviews librarians and teachers consult when they're stocking their shelves. Celebrities snag coveted interviews on major networks, and of course, they can always count on their fan-base for support. Jamie Lee Curtis, John Lithgow, and Whoopi Goldberg have all made it onto the New York Times bestseller list for their children's books. As Nicole Deming of the Children's Book Council, a nonprofit trade association for children's publishers, put it, "They're natural publicity machines."
The success of these books inspires mixed feelings from those within the children's literature industry.
"It's more for the parents. The kids don't know who these celebrities are," said Kayla, one of the Books of Wonder employees. She walked over to the counter and to ask a colleague what he thinks of celebrity children's books. He's partial to Freckleface Strawberry, by Julianne Moore.
"Well, the illustrator is great," Kayla said.
"That's my favorite illustrator!"
"Yeah, the illustrator helps a lot."
The artwork for Moore's series was done by LeUyen Pham, who has illustrated dozens of books. The figures are lively, like the hastily drawn sketches of a child. "I think it gives an opportunity for an illustrator to rise, if an unknown illustrator is paired with a celebrity author," says Deming. For an early reader scanning the shelves, pictures would be more likely to catch the eye than Moore's name. Or Gloria Estefan's, or Dolly Parton's, or Madonna's—all among those who got into the children's literature game after having already established themselves as, say, a Latin pop sensation, a country diva, or a sex symbol.
"I mean, how many 4-year-olds know who Madonna is?" wonders Courtot.
For authors who have struggled to make a name for themselves, it can be hard to see shelves stocked with what seem to be the side projects of celebrities.
"We understand that publishers want to make money. But we do strongly believe that the really good books deserve as much attention as possible," says Rosalyn Schanzer, who has been a full-time author and illustrator of children's books since the early '90s.
Rita Williams-Garcia, who was a Newbery honoree this year and won numerous other awards for her young adult fiction, says she views most attempts by celebrities at children's literature as "book products and something less than a book itself."
When the Newbery and Caldecott awards were announced this year, Williams-Garcia expected to cheer on the winners for what had been a customary celebratory appearance on NBC's Today show. But after a decade of annual interviews, NBC turned down publicity requests from the American Library Association—which administers the awards—in favor of a sit-down with Jersey Shore star Snooki , who had come out with a book of her own.