For many years I wondered why children's book publishing has no scruples when it comes to celebrity books. I've seen them print anything from anyone who's got name recognition. Recently, a publicist gave me a reason that made perfect sense. Children's books get so little attention that it's much easier to get exposure for a book by a famous or recognizable author.
The truth of her comment hit home last month. Within five minutes of cruising the morning talk shows, I saw two new children's books get their 15 seconds of fame. One was written by a grandmother with AIDS, for her granddaughter. The second was written by Sandra Day O'Connor's grandchild who traced a day spent with grandma. These stories played well, but I had to wonder about the quality of the books.
The good news is that some decent celebrity efforts are creeping into the marketplace. I've grown to accept the inevitability of continued celeb publication and have decided that perhaps the expertise and experience I've garnered during two decades of writing and reviewing children's books might be of use to these destined-to-be-published luminaries. Here, then, are eight rules for authors with star power who might like to create books that will earn starred reviews.
This is the first rule new writers learn, and whether you want to write fantasy, or non-fiction, it's always a good place to start. Celebrities definitely do best when they bring their expertise to a book.
I was dubious of Judge Judy Sheindlin's Win or Lose by How You Choose!, but it's a winner because its author wrote what she knew! During her career, Judge Judy has seen the consequences of people making wrong decisions, and her book opens doors for parent-child exploration, thought and evaluation by posing a series of questions and offering multiple-choice answers. Some responses are integrity-rich, others are middle-of-the-road safe, and some are obviously bad choices. In this book, Judge Judy makes no judgments and delivers no lectures.
Nationally syndicated gardening columnist C.Z. Guest brings her own knowledge of gardening and grandchildren together in Tiny Green Thumbs. Tiny Bun is counseled by his grandmother, Ganny Bun, in the "six things you need to grow a garden." Bunny characters are usually a sign of condescension, but Guest's clear, concise how-to gardening information saves this book.
Many times I've heard new authors predict that their manuscripts will please me because "my granddaughter/child/students loved my story." While family and friends make for appreciative audiences, will they tell you that your book stinks? Using family names and stories doesn't necessarily make compelling reading, and trying to bend a tale around truth can be limiting.
I've lost count of the books Jane Seymour has published about the cartoon cat family that so resembles her own. Her twin kitty heroes, This One and That One, launch a new series of chunky board books that are too small for the intended toddler audience. The good news is that the price tag is also small, the 2-inch pages limit her words, and the two most flagrantly eponymous characters, Lady Jane and Big Jim (as in director-actor-writer-husband James Keach), are missing. The bad news is that she hasn't used the twin theme to much advantage; Me & Me is the same old listing of body parts you've seen in a million children's books.
Many novice children's authors are strongly motivated. They want to convey the truths they've learned through experience, but the fastest way to turn off readers is to lecture them.
There are rare exceptions. For The Children: Words of Love and Inspiration from His Holiness Pope John Paul II is wise in both content and construction. The book's producers have gathered the pope's collected writings and speeches into a non-fiction format. Colorful photographs show the pope's love and respect in his relationships with children. Clarity, sincerity and spirituality shine from its pages.
It is character, plot and conflict that captivate readers. Don't obscure these qualities with messages. Just tell your story and the meaning will surface on its own.
Jan Karon, author of the best-selling Mitford series, titles her first children's book, Jeremy: The Tale of an Honest Bunny. According to the jacket flap, she wrote this story for her daughter in 1958 to recall "the consoling verse from Psalm 91: 'He will give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all ways.'" Karon has written a rambling, disconnected story, full of characters that pop into Jeremy's life with tedious regularity, imposing mini-messages that never hang together. The only way we know Jeremy is honest is because Karon said so in the title. This attribute is neither tested, nor proven as Jeremy wends his way through a haphazard string of events. He is not an honest bunny, but a traveling one. If Karon had cared more about her character than her moral, the conflicts children love would have developed naturally. Instead she betrays Jeremy, and her message comes out convoluted and dishonest.
The best children's books please both child and adult audiences, but this is incredibly difficult. Writers who bundle up adult concepts and sophisticated subjects with clever words or cutesy writing are doomed to failure. Neither works for children, and they don't serve an author well either.
There's no question about David Mamet's dramatic wit; his Pulitzer Prize is testament to that. But his wit becomes pompous in Henrietta. On the first page we meet the porcine heroine who "lived on an Eastern Isle and walked its beaches one year to the next, engrossed in thought and study" until "... to Boston, the Athens of the North, did our pig go--for Boston sets itself up as our Seat of Learning, and have not the Luminaries in all the fields issued from there these last 300 years?" A wise adult or bored child will quit by page one.
Julie Andrews' third children's book, Little Bo, is an illustrated novel with an animal heroine who will make sense to children. Andrews respects the intelligence of children by setting her story in an English home where the class issue is made obvious by the way a mixed litter of kittens is treated. Andrews then introduces a strong female heroine in the feline underdog, Little Bo, named after Boadicea, the Celtic warrior queen. Andrews doesn't talk down to children in either idea or language, and creates characters both real and meaningful.
Many neophytes believe that in children's books all things are possible because you can use magic. But there's a trick to this magic stuff. A foundation of consistency and logic must support the fantasy.
Two distinguished writers attempt fanciful fables. Patricia Cornwall fails in Life's Little Fable. She riddles her story with allegory, and, while attempting to define the mystery of life, places amorphous characters in an ambiguous setting. Cornwall may be expert at utilizing suspense in her adult books, but her internal rhymes and pseudo-spiritual lingo only lead to confusion in this children's book.
Alice Hoffman uses magical realism in adult fiction so skillfully, she is well-qualified to write children's fantasy. In her first, Fireflies: A Winter's Tale, she provides a realistic setting for fantastical happenings when she describes a village covered with snow from November until May. There, everyone enjoys skating until fireflies come in a "shining cloud" that heralds spring. Then one year, the season doesn't arrive. Enter the unlikely hero, Jack, a bumbling skater, teased so horribly by peers that he runs away. It is Jack, finally, who frees the fireflies and releases spring. Hoffman's voice is poetic in its simplicity and so is her story, making her fable live as an inspiring lesson children can easily understand.
Most people grew up with a favorite fairy tale. When you get famous, you get to retell it. Shaq and the Beanstalk and Other Very Tall Tales is written by NBA superstar Shaquille O'Neal. "Shaq and the Beanstalk," "Little Red Riding Shaq," "Shaq and the Three Bears" and three others are retold in a hip-hop style. Shaq overpowers the stories like he dominates the court, yet in terms of originality, this book is as big a bust as all the backboards the superstar has shattered.
Actress-choreographer-dancer-director Debbie Allen shows her creative gifts in Brothers of the Knight, a recasting of the "Twelve Dancing Princesses." Reborn with new characters and sparkling whimsy, the story tells of the widowed Reverend Knight of Harlem who is crazed by his 12 sons' shoes, which are "worn to threads, messed up, torn up, stinky, dirty, tacky, jacked up ... you get the picture." He can't find a nanny to control his wild offspring until a magical character named Sunday shows up. Shrouded in her invisible scarf, she follows the boys, discovers their secret, opens communication with their father, and unites the family with dance.
I teach children the "Forbidden Four Don'ts of Resolution." The ending can't be solved by having a character die, or dream. You can't use deus ex machina (or rescue your character with magic or another hero). And you can't leave readers dangling. The hero of the book should solve the conflicts you've created and that character should grow in the doing.
When I began Toni Morrison's The Big Box, I had some prejudices. On the book jacket, she tells how she took a story devised by her son Slade who "let his mother impose the rhyme." Generally, when new writers use rhyme, the work suffers. This is not true in Morrison's case and although the book is really for adults, it works until the end. The heroes of the story are four unique children who are imprisoned in a large box because they trouble adults. At the story's conclusion, they spring from this box without having taken any action and there's no reason behind why the release occurred. The only explanation is one of my Forbidden Four ... deus ex machina.
The people I know who write children's books work hard to create and craft them. A picture book, for example, can take years to complete, for each word must be precise and pleasing in sound and meaning. The general populace seems to think these works are effortless to compose. Recently, a colleague giving blood was told by her technician, "This weekend my girlfriend and I got drunk and we wrote a children's book."
Fortunately most of these badly conceived, poorly written children's books perish in the thousands of submissions that publishers receive every month. Unfortunately, the products by celebrities survive, despite serious shortcomings. I hope the pointers I've given will help new writers, whatever their chosen profession. Meanwhile, I've decided that I can learn from the celebrities. I'm going to contact Shaquille O'Neal and tell him I'm ready to be a basketball star. Even though I'm little over 5-feet tall, I've watched a lot of basketball games and I like them. If things work for me like they did for Shaq, I figure I ought to be starting for the Lakers within the year.