When Stanley "Tookie" Williams published his first round of children's books, "Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence," I was asked for comment by Newsweek, and my negative remarks subsequently earned me a series of phone calls from men who described themselves as Mr. Williams' "associates." My mistake, by their lights, was to divorce the quality of the books (which I thought were clumsy and padded in the extreme) from the authority of the author--because Tookie knew whereof he spoke, his books were de facto effective vehicles for keeping kids out of gangs.
We see this call to authority all the time in children's books, and in Tookie Williams' case, it's wedded to celebrity, a different but related situation in which who the author is is at least as important as what the author has to say. (I'm reminded of that famous old Kirkus line: "As a writer, Barbara Bel Geddes is a marvelous actress.")
Today is Tookie Williams' latest day in court, as California's Governor Schwarzenegger, himself married to another children's book expert, hears his plea for clemency. So now the authority and celebrity that obtained in Williams getting to publish his children's books in the first place is meant to work in reverse: because Williams has published children's books against gang violence, he should be allowed to avoid the death sentence.
What do we all think? I am against Williams being put to death because I am against the death penalty, but I'm not sure how I feel about the p.r. strategy employed on his behalf. It is shrewd, though. Incidentally, Williams later wrote a much better book, Life in Prison, a simply written chapter book about what it's like behind bars.