Children's books: how rock 'n' roll; week in books column


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The Independent Culture

I wonder how many five-year-olds are itching to get their hands on Keith Richards’s Gus & Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar. Or how many are champing at the bit to see his daughter, Theodora Richards’s illustrations accompanying the text. And to froth over the gallery of pictures, including Keith with Mick in the early days of The Rolling Stones. And to coo over the story which traces Richards’s thrilling childhood encounter with music: “I took a long look at that guitar that always sat on top of his piano. It seemed more beautiful than ever. All I wanted was to make the strings go dinka-plink-plink….”

In fact, I wonder how many five-year-olds even know who Richards is. I have a sneaking suspicion that the average primary-school child may well be clueless about and, dare I say it, indifferent to his reputation, and that it is parents who will be running out to buy Gus & Me to read to their little ones. Maybe they’ll do this, in part, so that afterwards they can slip the book into their “collectors” cabinet of children’s books written by celebrities. Books that were really bought for them, not for the kids.

Chances are, it was us “big kids” who tuned into BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to hear Richards’s tender story of how his grandfather sparked his love of music (which forms the inspiration for the book). It might even be “us” who find the story most appealing, bringing our nostalgia of childhood together with our knowingness around the author’s ‘wild’ back history. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong and it will become the new kids’ classic. We’ll wait and see.

What can’t be disputed is that writing children’s books is the new rock ’n’ roll for celebrities.Richards joins the ranks of Madonna, Mackenzie Crook, David Walliams, the Duchess of York, Russell Brand (who releases a re-telling of The Pied Piper of Hamelin this autumn), Sting, Billy Crystal, Bill Crosby, Desmond Tutu… I could go on.

There are so many that they warrant their own dedicated shelf, and perhaps their own sub-genre classification: “kids’ books by former rock ’n’ rollers for formerly rock ’n’ roll parents”. How many of these become well-thumbed favourites for children, rather than quirky coffee-table books for us? Walliams, for one, has proved his talent for storytelling alongside comedy, though he seems to be in the minority in this crowded field.

To return to Richards, we know he is a bibliophile and that he can write, because he impressed us all with his collaboration on his critically acclaimed autobiography, Life. This is not to get at Richards’s endeavour, or any of the others; stars need to have something to do in their fallow periods, in between tours or film projects. But as the poet and novelist, Benjamin Zephaniah recently suggested, writing stories well requires a lot of craft and effort. Zephaniah drafted his latest YA book, Terror Kid, about a teenage computer hacker on the run from the police amid the Birmingham riots, no less than 12 times to make sure that the story was “spot on”. Though he was talking about getting the subject matter right, its artful delivery is a very particular art in children’s storytelling. Captivating children’s tales are hard to write, which is why we so return to the same cherished classics, more often than not written by the most accomplished storytellers whose fame or market value children don’t know – or care – about.