Friday, February 24, 2006

The exception that isn't

When it comes to celebrity books, Linda Sue Park asks only for better editing. Because the authors are amateurs and the publicity extensive, Park argues that "with celebrity titles, publishers have even more responsibility than usual to produce a good book," and that to let something by that is second-rate shows a lack of respect for children. Yes--and a lack of respect for those celebrity-writers, too, although perhaps they don't care.

But can I just say that I have some trouble with the Jamie Lee Curtis Exception, where we routinely exempt her books from celebrity-book stigma? Curtis's books are as message-y as Madonna's, and their child-voice sounds synthetic to me. Sure, there are worse, but isn't there always? Frankly, I think we give her a pass because of the illustrations by Laura Cornell, which have a distinctive style of their own and bear no resemblance to the labored realism that is too often seen illustrating the pages of celebrity picture books.

14 comments:

KT Horning said...

Roger, you're on to something with the illustrations for Curtis's books. Why is it that so many celebrity books have such ghastly illustrations? Do the celebrities have enough clout (and poor taste) to choose these awful illustators themselves? Or do the publishers figure the books will sell no matter what, so why waste the talents of a gifted illustrator on the likes of Jay Leno or Billy Crystal?

Based on a few horror stories I've heard from publisher friends, I assume that most celebrity books are ghost written. That makes me wonder if they're written poorly on purpose so that we'll actually believe the books were written by celebs.

One of my collegues just returned from a state-wide teacher's conference where Henry "The Fonz" Winkler was the speaker at the author luncheon. The printed program had him listed as Henry Winker. So much for name recognition.

Roger Sutton said...

I remember Bill O'Reilly scoffing at Madonna's first picture book as ghost-written. If only!

I also remember your predecessor convening a mock-Caldecott in which one of those belaboredly realistic picture books won (or placed), a fact GMK ascribed to the art teachers involved, and their general preference for representational art that looked as much like "real life" as possible. Maybe the audience for celebrity picture books is the same?

KT Horning said...

Perhaps... but I don't think the art in most celebrity books is even good as representational art. It reminds me of the work of those sidewalk artists who paint people's portraits.

rindambyers said...

Much as I personally like and admire Ms. Curtis, I have to agree with Roger's assessment of her books. However, unfortunately, I'm not a big fan of LSPark's writing either...as I find it also somewhat preachy....so, so, so....maybe a lot of people out there really like preachy things, which is sort of scary to think about, or else maybe I took in too much "preaching" as a child and (not from my father either, a talented pastor and speaker, who told us children his own "souped up" versions of Old Testament stories that were just great fun to listen to...) but...like I say, I detest a preachy tone in books for children, no matter who the author is. Ah! My own opinion, however, probably heavily biased...from getting too much "preaching" as a child.

patrick said...

Editors certainly play a part. I wrote a picture book quite a few years ago, and being young and foolish signed away most of my rights (won't do that again) including final say over the text. By the time it had been through changes from British and American editors the meaning had become a message - and not one I was quite comfortable with. One review pointed out the preachiness but most of them liked the 'message' and I don't think any understood the far more subtle point that I thought I was making. I felt a bit cross and moved on. I did realise though that relatively small changes can shift a book's meaning and that some publishers at least think a good clear message sells. I thought all the editorial changes to the language made it worse in every way, and realised that editors are quite likely to have tin ears, although I've never had that problem again.

Andy Laties said...

I think Linda Sue gives too much credit to all the fine editors she's had. I love her writing (which doesn't strike me as preachy: she's very much the "show, don't tell" type). That is, I doubt her editors are responsible for the strength of her work. Similarly, I think she holds out too much hope that more engaged editing for celebrity authors would better salvage their books.

Plenty of fine children's authors moved from other fields. Arthur Ransome was a leading international correspondant for the Manchester Guardian. Ludwig Bemelmans was a brilliant Headwaiter in Vienna and New York. St. Exupery was a pilot. David Wisniewski was a clown with Ringling Brothers. And some actors have written very strong children's literature: Alan Arkin's "The Lemming Condition" and Julie (Andrews) Edwards "Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles" for instance.

It's depressing that mediocre books by top celebrities sell a lot of copies. But to my mind it's a lot worse that licensed crap that spins off of cartoons dominates those mass-market children's book displays. At least with Jerry Seinfeld and Billy Crystal there's good reason to hope that their work may improve over the years. 30 years from now, each may have personally written 10 books or more. These guys ARE writers! Perhaps they'd agree that their first efforts were not up to snuff. Anyway, successful stand-up comics have generally learned to ignore the press -- and to be their own fiercest critics.

Andy Laties said...

And how about Kay Thompson? Does anyone now even remember that when "Eloise" appeared the author was known as a movie star and Las Vegas performer? The woman who taught Judy Garland how to move from Innocent to Diva? Perhaps the problem with some of these current celebrity books is with too MUCH editing! Could anyone have forced Kay Thompson to tone Eloise down? Perhaps if Jerry Seinfeld were PERMITTED to be as outrageous as he's capable of being, his children's books would be terrific!

Andy

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that Thompson didn't consider Eloise a children's book at all.

Andy Laties said...

Really! Fascinating. I never heard that before, but it makes a lot of sense to me.

Maybe I'll start stocking it in my "Picture Books For Grown-Ups" section, between "Motel Of The Mysteries" (by David Macaulay the Public-TV star) and "There's A Hair In My Dirt" (by Gary Larsen the cult comic strip artist).

Andy

KT Horning said...

Andy, have you ever seen the Eloise parody written by Sandra Scoppetone and Louise Fitzhugh in 1961 called Suzuki Beane? It begins:

"my name is suzuki beane
i have a pad on bleeker street
with hugh and marcia"

It's kind of obscure but I come acoss a copy in used book stores about once a decade.

Andy Laties said...

We had an employee back at The Children's Bookstore whose nickname was Suzuki Bean! I had no idea there was a referent -- I wonder if SHE knew it!

My daughter is writing a paper about Women of the Beat Generation. A few days ago I read an anecdote about Diane di Prima in the tub with Kerouac and Ginsberg in '57. Although maybe Suzuki wasn't a beat, but a folkie.

Andy

KT Horning said...

Suzuki was definitely beat. A baby beatnik, in fact.

Andy Laties said...

Which brings us back around to Laura Cornell's visual style! Wasn't her first book "Annie Bananie", by Leah Komaiko? I think Jamie Lee Curtis had this book, and approached Harper and asked specifically for Laura to work with, based on "Annie Bananie". Well -- Annie Bananie, the character in the book, is definitely a radical, wacko, creative girl -- which is why the book's narrator is so depressed when Annie moves away. Nothing's fun anymore. I'd say that Suzuki Bean is more the archetype for today's Hip Girl type heroine, and has substantially displaced the Eloise type heroine.

Incidentally, Kay Thompson I believe was ultimately disappointed with a large portion of her own creative output -- you recall she prohibited the reprinting of several of her titles, during her lifetime, and only "Eloise" was available, for several decades. That is: she was a professional performer and she knew she wasn't a terrific author-cum-author and she was willing to act on that knowledge. Do you suppose that Jamie Lee Curtis or Jerry Seinfeld would have it in themselves to look back at their own oeuvre('s(?)) and announce that such-and-such a title they'd decided was mediocre and they'd forbid its reprinting despite the presence of obvious demand?

Kay Thompson really was quite a strong-minded woman, to do such a thing.

Don't you love her in "Funny Face", opposite Fred Astaire?

Andy

rindambyers said...

Just hope nobody misunderstood that I have nothing personal against either LSPark's picturebooks or Curtis' picturebooks...I'm just meant that, for me, when I'm in the bookstore and need a message picturebook, I'm going to leave with "Duck For President" and probably several copies of it. (And hope nobody gets OT here with politicizing because I am a secret Duck supporter married to a Republican who is changing his politics, and I had to put my foot down in my house--no yelling except at football games...okay, so no political yelling on Roger' blog, either, or I'm outa here..."

To further eludicate, I think the first "Madeleine" book is a prime example to use to point out what's wrong with so many picturebooks these days.. The book has terrible poetry; it's really doggerel and so awkward to read aloud, and the art, well it's probably downright insulting to call it anything but amateurish at best, but the point is that the book has what I call the essential "pooh-pooh" element. You know, "At the tiger in the zoo, Madeleine just said "pooh-pooh!" Or as Emily Dickinson would say "the culprit--life!" The book breathes, lives, infects...despite its many, many artistic and literary faults...it is somehow a live thing.

I have never, ever read those two lines aloud to any small child and never gotten a hearty belly laugh. Never fails. Love it....and love, love, ADORE Duck.....too...