May 2007

Patricia Kenet

Book Tot

"Listen Up, Kids, I'm Famous"

From the first time the doctor placed you in my arms, I knew I’d meet death before I’d let you come to harm. Although questions rose in my mind, would I be man enough? Against wrong, choose right and stand up?

If I didn’t know better, I’d guess that this passage was written by an ex-Marine medic describing war casualties. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The words appear in a book, Just the Two of Us by actor Will Smith intended for children aged 4-8. When I started reading this book to my 7-year-old son, he pushed it aside and walked away. He didn’t care that Will Smith was nominated for an Academy Award and won four Grammies. Likewise, I was uneasy about reading a book intended for a child that brought up a parent’s machinations about dying on the first page. Like many books by celebrity authors, the point of view is narcissistic. It ignores the fact that children don’t like to hear about their parent’s insecurities and worries. Children are engaged by stories about their world -- preferably a world that is made safe by grown ups. They also enjoy stories with relevant understandable themes -- sharing, making friends, discovering how things work.

In another passage, Smith raises the issue of romantic entanglements, a topic beyond a child’s understanding. "One day some girl’s gonna break your heart/And there ain’t no pain like from the opposite sex." What do these words communicate to a child but a parent’s anxiety about an age-inappropriate subject? I don’t mean to single out Just the Two of Us. There are dozens of these books by celebrities. For the most part, they don’t work.

Instead of Just the Two of Us read these books on the subject of Fatherhood:

The Daddy Book by Todd Parr, ages 4-8
Just Me and My Dad by Mercer Mayer, pre-school
Just Us Two: Animal Dads by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Susan Swan, ages 4-8
I Love My Daddy by Sebastien Braun, ages 4-8
What Dads Can’t Do by Douglas Wood, illustrated by Doug Cashman, ages 4-8

Booksellers, like Beth Puffer from Bank Street Bookstore in New York, have cast a critical eye on celebrity-penned books. “They seem to come out of the celebrity’s own childhood experiences. There is no frame of reference for a child,” she said. Along with Just the Two of Us, Ms. Puffer cited Billy Crystal’s I Already Know I Love You as another example of the writer’s own experience presented through an adult’s perspective. Even’s usually kind-hearted reviews called Crystal’s writing “awkward.”

Instead  of “I Already Know I Love You” read these books about Grandparents:

Just Grandma and Me by Mercer Mayer, ages 4-8
Grandmas at the Lake by Emily Arnold McCully, early reader
Grandma and Me by Karen Katz, pre-school
Strega Nonna by Tomie de Paola, ages 4-8
We’re Very Good Friends, My Grandapa and I by P.K. Hallinan, pre-school
Clams All Year by Maryann Cocca-Leffler, ages 4-8

Ms. Puffer named a few other celebrity books which did not sell well, and in her opinion, for good reason. For example, Jerry Seinfeld’s Halloween was more or less one of his comic stand ups with little to offer to a child’s imagination. The tone is sarcastic -- an approach that kids under 8 usually don’t appreciate. “Publishers think these books will sell, but customers don’t buy them. The books have an adult sensibility and the humor is above children’s heads,” said Ms. Puffer.

In a commentary for NPR, well-regarded children’s book author, Jon Scieszka said, “Writing for kids isn’t about you, it’s about them. Like a good teacher or parent, you have to give up always being the one in the spotlight.”

Instead of Jerry Seinfeld’s book, read these books about Halloween:

The Hallo-Wiener by Dav Pilkey, ages 4-8
Halloween Bugs by David A. Carter, ages 4-8
Trick or Treat, Smell My Feet by Diane deGroat, ages 4-8
Trick or Treat, Smell My Feet (a different book) by Lisa Desmini, ages 4-8
Froggy’s Halloween by Jonathan London and Frank Remkiewicz, pre-school
Scary, Scary Halloween by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Jan Brett, ages 4-8

The trend in celebrities writing children’s books was initiated about ten years ago by the trendiest of trendsetters -- Madonna with “The English Roses.” The book’s illustrations are lovely, and the message is worthwhile -- appearances can be deceiving but I prefer books that touch upon self esteem and peer pressue in more subtle and humorous ways.

Instead of The English Roses read:

Amazing Grace by Caroline Binch and Mary Hoffman, ages 4-8
A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon, ages 4-8
Stand Tall Molly Lou Mellon by Patty Lowell, illustrated by David Catrow, ages 4-8
Chrysanthemum by Kevin Hankes, ages 4-8

But it hasn’t been all bad. Jamie Lee Curtis and John Lithgow have written books that children and booksellers like. Their books succeed for a simple, but often elusive quality. They are good stories told in a charming way. Curtis’s earlier books are her best -- I’m Gonna Like Me and Today I Feel Silly: And Other Moods that Make My Day both illustrated by Laura Cornell with a deft touch of whimsy. Lithgow deserves praise for Marsupial Sue illustrated by Jack E. Davis. The book comes with a CD of the musical version of the text -- a catchy, bouncy tune. Another good one is I’m a Manatee.

Readers' responses may have finally made publishers pay attention. Fewer and fewer of these celebrity books are making their way to the shelves.

Parents have spoken. The rich and famous are no longer welcome in their children’s bedrooms. Mothers and fathers instinctively understand that the celebrity's ever-present refain "It's all about me", not only conveys the wrong message, it's just plain boring.