Celebrities find writing isn't child's play
BARACK Obama's presidency will reach a milestone of historic proportions on November 16. No, it is not the mid-term congressional elections. It is the release by his book publisher of his new book. A children's book.
With the publication of Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters, Mr Obama will join the throng of celebrities, including some Australians, with a mystifying desire to fill the gaps left by The Wind in the Willows, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and other works by recognised children's authors.
Jamie Lee Curtis, Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson and Ricky Gervais are among the better-known Beatrix Potter/Roald Dahl wannabes. But a bit of digging reveals an astoundingly long list of A, B and Z-grade celebs who have succumbed to publishers the urge to release their inner Thomas the Tank Engine.
Madonna, ex-presidents Jimmy Carter and George Bush snr, Steve Martin, Tori Spelling, Bob Dylan, Neil Sedaka, Billy Crystal, Brooke Shields, Whoopi Goldberg, Tim McGraw, Jay Leno, John Travolta, former New York mayors Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch, Gloria Estefan, Henry ''The Fonz'' Winkler, Dolly Parton, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Midler, Spike Lee, mobster John Gotti, Grateful Dead singer Jerry Garcia, newsreader Katie Couric, Julianne Moore and Jada Pinkett-Smith …
And they're just the Americans. Paul McCartney, Sting, Julie Andrews, Sophie Dahl and Lenny Henry are some of the Brits.
The Australian contribution, whether because of lower population, lack of literary ability, or simple good taste, is small. Before he got the boot, ex-prime minister Kevin Rudd put out Jasper and Abby and the Great Australia Day Kerfuffle. Kylie Minogue released The Showgirl Princess in 2006. Wendy Harmer's Pearlie in the Park series has been very successful, Mark ''Chopper'' Read's Hooky the Cripple a little less so.
Non-celebrity children's authors can take heart from Harmer's success that literary ability does count for something. Harmer, known primarily as a comedian and talk-show host, has a background in journalism and writing for adults that has paid off handsomely with Pearlie in the Park. The books have sold 700,000 copies, been translated into 10 languages and made into an animated TV series in Japan, and are about to be turned into a musical.
''My first book came out when the first book by Madonna came out and so I got that tag of 'celebrity children's book author','' says Harmer. A week wouldn't go by without someone getting in touch, via her self publishing website, to ask ''how can I get my children's book published?'', she says. ''It's something that I think that most parents think that they would like to do.''
Many of the celebrities are indeed parents who have no doubt read a storybook to their children and thought they could do better. But Harmer sees another motive as well.
''Some people when they have a lull in their popularity go off to Africa on a World Vision tour, some people set up foundations, and some people go on Oprah and sit on the couch and cry. And some people write children's books.''
Madonna's book for kids, The English Roses, is, Harmer suspects, a counterbalance to her infamous coffee-table photo-book, Sex.
''I didn't think much of the Madonna book,'' says Harmer. ''It's about a group of girls who hate a beautiful, successful blonde girl. At the time my daughter thought, 'I don't know any girls like that.' I thought for Madonna it might have been a bit of a biography.'' Sarah Ferguson's book Budgie the Helicopter, says Harmer, was ''basically Thomas the Tank Engine with wings''.
Harmer adds that ''children are pretty tough critics''.
''Paul McCartney can write a kids' book but if it's not a good kids' book it ain't going anywhere,'' she says. ''Kids, in the end, couldn't give a rats who wrote it … It either stands as a book in its own right or it doesn't work.''
Penguin publishing director Robert Sessions is also not a fan of Fergie's book. ''It should never have been published,'' he says. ''It just lacked real imagination. It was published because it was by somebody, not because it deserved to be published.''
Sessions says children's books can be very underrated and are far harder to write than their length would indicate.
''There is a belief that children's books are easier to write because they're shorter,'' he says. ''Any good children's writer will tell you that that's not so.''
Nevertheless, Sessions admits that celebrity names sell children's books. ''Of course it's lucrative. If you were a book publisher and Lady Gaga came along to you and said, 'I've just written this book for children,' you'd move heaven and earth to make it into a publishable book … because you'd know it would sell.''
Barack Obama's book is an example of that: Random House book publishers paid him $2 million in 2004 for a three-book deal, including a children's book (the proceeds are going to charity). The 40-page book is described as a ''moving tribute to 13 groundbreaking Americans and the ideals that have shaped a nation''.
US President Barack Obama Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters, released in Australia on November 16.
Ex-PM Kevin Rudd Jasper and Abby and the Great Australia Day Kerfuffle, 2010.
Singer Kylie Minogue The Showgirl Princess, 2006.
Singer Madonna The English Roses , 2003.
Comedian Wendy Harmer The Pearlie in the Park series (12 books so far) has been hugely popular - selling 700,000 copies