Once upon a time...

From Prince Charles to Sophie Dahl, the world of children's book-writing has had its fair share of famous interlopers. But who would have thought that Madonna, whose last published work was a collection of erotic photographs, would turn her hand to bedtime stories? Boyd Tonkin on why we should be wary of A-list authors
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Not so far away, and not so long ago, the sleepy village of Children's Books dozed peacefully beneath a big, fat yellow sun. The folks who made their living there went about their business cheerfully, adored by their young readers but overlooked by everyone else. True, that waspish Mistress Blyton in the mansion on the hill had built an empire out of her hundreds of kiddies' tales, while showing precious little patience with her own brood. Old Professor Tolkien was revered - if not always understood - by one and all, while Father Lewis drew huge crowds to his sermons. And everyone guiltily enjoyed the stinks and explosions that emanated from Mad Mr Dahl's crazy cottage.

By and large, the village went its own sweet way, spreading knowledge, pleasure and a love of reading from its cosy nook within the cultural landscape. Then something almost miraculous, and quite alarming, came to pass. When young Miss Rowling cooked up her new recipes from a stock of favourite ingredients, they didn't merely sell like hot fairy cakes: they sold more quickly, more widely, more continuously, than anyone in the village could ever remember. The fame of young Miss R spread to every corner of the land and, in particular, to the sort of greedy grown-up who thought that Swallows and Amazons might be the title of a very naughty film.

Then, the slick wizards from the City of PR began to arrive. They snooped around; they tasted the local dishes; above all, they peered in the village treasure chest and saw that it was overflowing. "A nice little outfit you've got here," they snarled. "So how do we take a slice of the action?"

... And so began the process that results, this weekend, in Madonna hosting a Kensington tea party to launch The English Roses. Inspired by the mysticism-lite of the modern cabbala movement, and published by Puffin as a 48-page hardback with "sumptuous finishes", The English Roses will be the first of five projected children's fables from the fading pop icon. The "international celebrity and mother" (Puffin's words) last graced bookshop shelves in 1992 with Sex, her collection of would-be artistic porn. Now, she has sniffed the air and decided that the latest of many makeovers should re-brand her as the matronly purveyor of uplifting tales for kids. "Madonna is once again going to surprise, delight and lead the way," gushes her American publisher, Nicholas Callaway.

Madonna's involvement with the Hollywood version of cabbala - the arcane discipline that has hovered on the margins of orthodox Judaism for millennia - has also led her to buy a £3.5m central-London property for the movement. Quite how she intends to fold its famously elusive tenets into a series of short kids' stories remains to be seen. Children's tales and religious doctrine - however nebulous - seldom mix happily. Even CS Lewis's allegorical insertion of mainstream Christian belief into his Chronicles of Narnia has proved divisive since the novels' publication in the early 1950s. But The English Roses will presumably join the £50-a-pot skin-care products and the cabbala-inspired mineral water as material proof of the hunger for ready-made spirituality that lurks among the stars.

Rabbi David Goldberg, senior minister at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in north London, comments that it's "just another Californian fad" that has little to do with the authentic cabbala, "a serious and esoteric study that has produced some profound works". Indeed, the rabbi passes an even more succinct theological judgment on Madge's latest enthusiasm: "It's cobblers."

The Material Mom told Amazon.co.uk that the ethical element of The English Roses "deals with envy and jealousy, and how these emotions cause so much unnecessary suffering in our lives". Let's hope that this "unnecessary suffering" does not involve any pangs of resentment felt by the star of her husband Guy Ritchie's prize turkey, Swept Away. She may, after all, have contrasted the universal respect and affection enjoyed by another global icon who has Scottish connections with her own, rather rockier, rep.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has, in 12 weeks, sold almost three million copies in the UK alone. Nothing that Madonna has ever done, or will do, can match that rate and depth of impact. Amazingly, at the zenith of our cult of celebrity, a mere children's yarn-spinner outranks the empress of pop in strict commercial terms. No wonder Madonna seeks a slice of this magical pie. Yet her statements on children's literature hardly inspire confidence. She told the music channel VH1 that the storybooks she read to her two-year-old son Rocco were "vapid and vacant and empty", regretting that "there were no lessons - they were all just about princesses, and the beautiful prince arrives and he takes her for a wife." Outraged at such flimflam, Madonna added: "I didn't see anybody struggling for things."

So she decided that she could do better. One has to wonder who advised Madonna on her choice of picture books. Her quoted comments have about as much relevance to most of today's titles for very young readers as the complaint that Elvis Presley's jungle rhythms are corrupting our nation's youth.

Ill informed or not, Madonna has access to the sort of marketing tools that will open otherwise closed doors. Not only will The English Roses appear next Monday simultaneously in 30 languages, and 100 countries, but Madonna's recent modelling and promotion deal with Gap means she can insist that the clothing chain stock copies of her book in more than 4,000 stores around the world. Gap's autumn range features a lot of retro-style corduroy. You might treat Madge's literary venture as a corduroy-style look in itself: classic, comfortable, domestic, intrinsically virtuous. At any rate, her era of bondage underwear and conical metallic bras feels a million years away.

Philip Pullman, the Whitbread-winning author of the His Dark Materials trilogy and the most critically acclaimed children's writer in decades, is sanguine about Madonna's arrival on his patch. "The rule is very simple, really," he says. "If a book is any good, it will survive. If not, there's no harm done." He notes that celebrity amateurs write adult novels, too. At worst, Madonna's magnum opus will merely deepen publishers' new-found dependence on a few famous names.

Whatever its genre, comments Pullman, the vogue for the celebrity volume "does distort the nature of a writing career. Publishers get caught up in a spiral of higher advances, more hype and quicker turnover." To the detriment of honest pros without the same aura of glitz and buzz.

At least Madonna has twigged that this book lark takes up a fair chunk of time. She revealed earlier this year that "I have finished writing them, but the editing, the illustrations, all of that, is incredibly time-consuming. I had no idea." Every other children's author does. Nicholas Tucker, who wrote the Rough Guides to Children's Books, points out that: "In picture books, the shorter the texts, the more writers agonise about them." Perhaps Madonna expected publishers to offer state-of-the-art digital mixing suites that instantly morphed her words into a preferred style.

Boring editorial grind apart, to any celebrity, the children's book world must now look as safe an investment for their time and name as dolphin charities or hospice fundraising. Earlier this year, the model Sophie Dahl - Roald's granddaughter, of course - managed to add the craft of "novelist" to her CV on the strength of 3,000 words of teen-level romantic fluff, published by Bloomsbury as The Man with the Dancing Eyes.

Madonna, queen of the charts, also follows in the wake of actual rather than metaphorical royalty. Two decades ago, a friendship with Spike Milligan persuaded the Prince of Wales that he possessed a zany sense of humour that ought to be shared with the children of the world. The result was The Old Man of Lochnagar, a vaguely ecological tale set around the Balmoral estate, still in print and flourishing on the Amazon.co.uk sales chart at number 186,847. Way ahead of the heir to the throne, however, comes Sarah Ferguson with Budgie the Little Helicopter, her 1989 masterpiece, which whirls its rotors merrily at number 144,413. We can only guess how high her latest literary effort, Little Red, will storm the charts. Amazon, boldly democratic when it comes to monarchical cast-offs, specifies the author of these titles as one "Sarah Mountbatten-Windsor York". Ms Ciccone, in contrast, does not have to endure the plebeian indignity of a listed surname.

From the ranks of the Hollywood A-list, one rather unsurprising star has emerged in recent years as a prolific and versatile children's author. Julie Andrews, once the face and voice of Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp, now has a truly scrumptious list of titles to her credit, as "Julie Andrews Edwards". They range from the escapades of the kitten Little Bo and the adventures of Dumpy the Dump Truck to her 1996 critical triumph The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. Jamie Lee Curtis has also diversified into the true lies of junior fiction. Her children's books include Today I Feel Silly and Where Do Balloons Go?, as well as a story that reflects her experience as an adoptive parent, Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born. That one, says Pullman, was "generally felt to be rather a good thing". For Tucker, however, "The real question is: would anyone buy these books if they were under a different name?"

The eruption of a universally recognised celeb into the children's book scene may warp the market. It can also disguise a more promising, and more permanent, source of fresh talent. Established adult authors - novelists, poets, even social thinkers - have been courting younger readers at least since Mary Wollstonecraft published her didactic Original Stories from Real Life in 1788. Many of today's leading British novelists - Helen Dunmore, Penelope Lively and Nina Bawden come to mind - have run successful parallel careers in adult and junior fiction. As for poets, the major modern bard who spurns verse aimed at the young is the exception rather than the rule. Some serious poetry buffs (not merely Andrew Lloyd Webber's accountants) would rush into a burning library to rescue TS Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats before his Four Quartets.

This year alone, at least three utterly different literary stars have begun to publish for children. Carl Hiaasen has extended the range of his Florida-set comedy-thrillers to the youth market with Hoot. This month, Jeanette Winterson releases her riches-to-rags fable The King of Capri, a gorgeous picture-book illustrated by Jane Ray. Most remarkably, Peter Ackroyd will turn his singular ability to conjure up the past into a multi-volume series of historical narratives for young people, Voyages Through Time. Even Elmore Leonard, the coolest dude on the street of US hard-boiled crime, will soon be chasing the "crossover" market of kids-plus-parents with his new novel, There's a Coyote in the House.

All these incomers know that the tranquil village of Children's Books has developed into a boom town. As usual in her career, Madonna is not breaking new ground but playing catch-up instead. The artwork for her recent American Life album even featured a Che Guevara beret and pose - roughly 30 years after everybody else.

For other children's authors, and their sector as a whole, another worry looms. Not only does Madonna adopt trends late; she often brings down ridicule on them. Madonna now aspires to join the blooming garden of young people's literature. The cultivators of its other flowers will be hoping that The English Roses bring delight, not blight.

'The English Roses' is published by Puffin, priced £12.99

COMPETITION: FAMOUS OPENING LINES

Should celebrities stick to their day jobs? Or are there untapped stars just waiting to enchant children with their literary efforts? Either way, we would like to know just how a fable by one of our best-known public figures might read. Goldilocks and the Three Bears, by Ozzy Osbourne, say, or Alice in Wonderland, by Germaine Greer ­ or even a Famous Five story by Tony Blair.

Send us ­ in 50 words or less ­ the opening to a children's book in the style of the celebrity of your choice.

Boyd Tonkin, the literary editor of The Independent, will pick the best and the winner will receive 90 of the BBC's Big Read Campaign books, together with 10 literary works by talented celebrities, courtesy of WHSmith, who have a "buy one, get one half price" offer on all books until 7 October.

Send entries, to arrive by Wednesday 24 September, to: Children's Book, Features Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS

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