Stop the snobbery – kids won’t fall for a book just because a celebrity wrote it

It is time to be a little more relaxed when people like Russell Brand barge in

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It is quite possible that Russell Brand will write some rather brilliant children’s books. He has a sense of humour. He likes to tease the grown-up world, which always goes down well with young readers. He even looks as if he has been drawn by Quentin Blake for a Roald Dahl story.

The worry, in fact, is not that he will corrupt innocent young minds, but the very opposite. Announcing recently the launch of Trickster Tales, his retelling of famous fairy stories, Brand struck a worryingly goody-goody note, with some self-important guff about “changing the way children see the world”. No professional children’s author would be that pretentious.

One should probably make allowances for the fact that Russell is a celebrity, adding to his product range. He has recently been cranking up his thoughtful side – only last month, he announced that he is to write a political manifesto about how to achieve “a personal and global utopia”. Presumably he would hate it to be thought that he was somehow cashing in. Frank Lampard will have had the same worries when becoming an author not so long ago, as will have Geri Halliwell, Madonna, Katie Price, John Travolta and other famous storytellers.

Brand’s announcement has, predictably enough, caused some gnashing of teeth among professional authors. Earning a living from writing is particularly tough at the moment, and, to those of us for whom it is not a sideline or a hobby, it can seem rather unfair when entertainers breeze in and land the fat advances and huge promotional budgets. The benefits to them are obvious – cash, credibility and, if they play their cards right and use a ghost writer, very little work – but what of the effect on publishing and, more importantly, on young readers?

Perhaps it is time to recognise that there are benefits to this golden age of the celebrity author. For a start, there are some obvious collateral benefits for the books industry.

Publishers are hugely relieved when they can sign up books which they not only are not obliged to read, but which can be marketed easily on the back of the author’s fame. For professional writers, there are some lucrative new jobs around for those prepared to put aside their egos and write for a famous name. Creatively, ghost writing is less harmful for one’s own fiction than, say teaching creative writing or blogging or even jobbing journalism.

As for those rare celebrities who dare to write their own books, a lesson will quickly be learned. Writing stories for young readers is a lot more difficult than it seems. There is a long tradition of established authors of adult books who have tried their hand at children’s fiction – Aldous Huxley, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Kingsley Amis, Ian McEwan, Garrison Keillor – but have not been inclined to repeat the experience.

The more serious argument against children’s stories becoming a popular career accessory for the famous is the effect of high-profile, badly-written books on children. Having been exposed to one leaden, overhyped book, it is argued, they will lose interest in reading altogether.

I suspect the problem is exaggerated. For young readers, a story is a story. They are less influenced than their parents by the face and the name of the person on the cover. What matters are the words and pictures on the page. If they are exciting or make them laugh, they will keep going. If not, no famous name on earth will keep them reading.

The world of adult fiction may have at the top of its best-seller lists a novel purportedly written by a famous model, who has in fact never read it, let alone written it, but children are more difficult to fool. Marketing and hype mean nothing to them.

Contrary to the received wisdom, it was not a promotional campaign that made the reputation of JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter story: that came later. It was the reaction of its readers. When David Walliams was launched as an author of children’s books in 2008, the marketing campaign surrounding his first book may have been the envy of other authors, but his continued success has nothing to do with publicity. It is because children love his books.

Their parents, on the other hand, might well be tempted to buy a book for their child, when the name on the front cover is that of their favourite comedian, footballer or singer. If the book disappoints, it is possible that the child may be discouraged from reading, but it is more likely that she or he will look out for something more sustaining. The celebrity children’s book, in other words, is breaking down barriers between readers and non-readers.

It is time to be a little more relaxed and grown-up when people like Walliams, Brand and Ricky Gervais barge into what was once a rather cosy and inward-looking world. They are bringing with them some real benefits. Parents who were once uncertain as to what stories to buy for their children, now feel less excluded. Children’s books are put centre stage, and are for the moment almost fashionable. Is that really  so terrible?

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