Tag Archive for Nadin Joanna

Celebrity Authors

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve noticed a proliferation of celebrity authors of children’s books. So far this year we have announcements of imminent books from Danny Baker, Dermot O’Leary, Fearne Cotton, and most recently, Miranda Hart. This week, I noticed that Jessica Ennis-Hill has a seven book series being published. Earlier this month, I myself reviewed the latest offering – a middle grade fiction novel from DJ Christian O’Connell. Others, of course, include David Baddiel, David Walliams, Russell Brand, Frank Lampard, Pharrell Williams, in fact the list goes on and on*

Some of them write their own stuff, and some of the books are ghost-written. And some of the books are good, some average, and some awful. I’ve yet to come across a great one – but you can let me know via my twitter handle if I’m wrong about that. So I can’t, and wouldn’t want, to tarnish them all with the same brush. For example, I happen to know that Chris Hoy’s books are written (or co-written depending on the source) by a really talented children’s writer, Joanna Nadin – and it shows. The plots work well, they are paced nicely, and I’ve rather enjoyed them. Ennis-Hill’s books name Elen Caldecott (a professional children’s author) as a co-author (a visible ghost, which must be progress on an invisible ghost-writer), and Elen’s a writer I admire greatly.

Kids like celeb authors. Well some kids enjoy some of them. They like the David Walliams books apparently – they’re certainly popular among the kids I work with. Although none I know claim that any of his titles are their ‘favourite’ books. But there is one thing these children have in common – they all have access to this celeb’s books.

The celebrity books are face out in the booksellers (chains at least). They have high profile, high sales, good discounts, press coverage, they appear on the World Book Day book list. So, children associate children’s books with celebrity. Is that bad? Yes, and here’s why.

Firstly, it belittles the writing of the book. It promotes the thinking that it’s not hard to do – look Chris Hoy can win Olympic medals and churn out a few kids’ stories. David Walliams is on Britain’s Got Talent and numerous comedy shows, but will also churn out another children’s book. Look, Dermot O’Leary can present the X-Factor and write a book. Celebrities give the impression that writing a book is easy – an extension to their brand, a spare time project.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not as if most ‘ordinary’ children’s authors can write full time. Most have other jobs; teaching in schools, working as booksellers, teaching creative writing etc. But they do these other jobs as necessities to bring in the money to pay the mortgage. If they could, they would all write full time.

Because it’s hard! Writing a good book takes lots of thought, and rewrites and editing, and more rewrites. It takes time and dedication and perseverance (and resilience). Because to succeed when you’re a nobody is hard. When you hear of authors having their books rejected (SF Said 90 times, Malorie Blackman 82 times, even Anne Frank’s Diary was rejected 15 times), it’s because they were penned by unknowns.

So it takes a really good book to make the cut. And that takes hard work. And you need to have the right topic, at the right time, because you’re a person that nobody’s heard of. One agent told me: “it takes an enormous amount of work and energy to launch a debut author, and we have to feel real passion for a project to talk about it for years and years.”

That’s just not the case for celebrity authors – it doesn’t take the same amount of work and energy, and sometimes it can be the passion for the person rather than the project that gives it sales for years and years. After television appearances, the book’s sales take care of themselves – the book doesn’t need its own publicist in the same way that a writer holed up at home does.

And so, and this is my second point, I can’t help but think that the bar for acceptance is lower for celebrities. There’s a readymade readership, and that’s why publishers take them on (most celebs already have the agent). They don’t have to spend years honing their craft to make the book noticeable on the slush pile. Their books just don’t have to be as good.

The given excuse in the industry is that the big names pay the salaries of the publishers, editors, agents, distributors, printers and booksellers, thereby giving leeway for the publisher to take the odd punt on a nobody. But how many good stories are we missing because the space has been taken by a celeb?

And thirdly, professional authors (not celebrities) are feeling the bite of the celebrity cult. There’s only so much space in the bookstores, only so many shelves in a library, columns on a review page. They still have to pitch their books to publishers, even once established. And there’s a disparity in the advances, with some celebrities receiving six figure sums, and professionals receiving low four figures. Ie. Wealth bestows wealth. Are we squeezing out not just new talent, but established talent?

Of course for the professional writers hired as ghost writers or visible ghosts on the celebrity books, there is a massive plus, and not just in monetary terms. Elen Caldecott kindly took the time to explain to me how beneficial she has found being the visible ghost behind Jessica Ennis-Hill’s new series:

“Working with Jessica has allowed me to take risks which would not normally be allowed within this (small c) conservative industry. I have been desperate to write a working-class, northern book for years now, but copy editors will standardise text to ‘Surrey English’. As Jessica tells her stories in her Sheffield accent, it was crucial to both of us that the text reflect this.”

“It’s the weight of the ‘brand’ name on the cover that has allowed this artistic risk to be taken…I can’t tell you how excited I was to be given a chance to do this.”

It’s an industry that is scared to take risks without a celebrity facia. Understandable in these difficult times, but a shame – yes.

Also, a celebrity name draws in those readers who might not otherwise reach for a book. This is a more palatable reason for celeb authors with visible ghosts, only in that if it gets children reading, then it can’t be wrong. However, why do celebrities have to be named as the ‘author’? Why not just endorse it (cover stickers/photos/quotes)? Look what Richard and Judy did for the fiction book market? What Zoella is doing for the YA book market with her WHSmith book club? Why not Miranda Hart’s ‘funniest children’s books’ list?

Because lastly, the message we’re giving children is that writing isn’t open to everyone, artistic freedom isn’t open to everyone. It demonstrates that to succeed in the book world you have to be famous first. Or rich. And outgoing. Which isn’t the case. Writing is for everyone, and children need to know that. Some of the best writers have been downright reclusive.

I’m not saying celebrities shouldn’t try their hand at writing, I’m not saying all their books are bad. I’m just saying let’s stop sending this message to kids about authors, and stop giving them second-rate books. As a society, we need to stop valuing average quality from celebrities over top quality from professionals.

Let’s tell children that ANYONE can write a book. But it’s not easy – it takes hard work, grit and determination – like being good at anything in life – you can’t just have it handed to you on a plate.

 

 

*Isla Fisher, Holly Willoughby, Ellie Simmonds, Theo Walcott, Peter Andre, Julian Clary, John Travolta, Katie Price, Madonna, Ricky Gervais, Barack Obama, Harry Hill, Kylie, Julie Andrews, Gloria Estefan, Will Smith, Julianna Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, …

Bikes, Trains and Boats

No information books about transport here, but three lively stories for newly independent readers. Each contains phenomenal illustrations, making these all easy transitions from picture books.

the secret railway

The Secret Railway by Wendy Meddour, illustrated by Sam Usher

This is a sparkling book, everything one could want for a young child starting to read, as it bursts with joy and magic and the silliness of fantasy lands where anything is possible. Wendy Meddour is the author of the quirky series Wendy Quill, as well as more recently, How the Library (Not the Prince) Saved Rapunzel, and she does have a wacky way of looking at things, which is a delight in a young children’s book.

A gorgeous sibling relationship between older brother Leo and younger sister Ella develops throughout the story. The children have moved house and while the parents unpack, the siblings go exploring and discover a secret railway in the station workshop of their new station house. But of course it’s not just a disused train line, but a magical railway that leads to the Kingdom of Izzambard where Griselda, the Master Clockmaker, has stopped time.

Riding the train in error, Ella and Leo are informed that they must return the magic magnifying glass to The Chief Snarkarian at The Great, Grand Library of the Snarks, and receive a key in return that will help them back to their own world. It’s as crazy as it sounds, but satisfyingly eventful and imaginative. With swooping mechanical birds, butterfly spies, and a marketplace full of beavers reminiscent of the munchkins from The Wizard of Oz, this is a jam-packed story of wonder and adventure. For an early reader it bursts with action and non-stop fun.

The book talks to the reader with text that is spunky and full of vitality, from the beginning where it asks for the readers’ tickets, to the description of ‘ordinary children’:

“Ella and Leo Leggit were not ordinary children. ‘Well, of course, you’ll say: ‘No children are’
And you’d be right. I’m sure you’re very peculiar. But what I mean is, Ella and Leo were extremely not ordinary.”

Each chapter is a different platform number, and the entire story is accentuated by Sam Usher’s now distinctive and endearing illustrations. Usher draws the sort of children that you want to hug, and manages to make every scene seem three-dimensional – you could just step into the story.

More to follow in The Secret Railway and the Crystal Caves in July 2016. You can chug along on the first Secret Railway here.

grey island red boat

Grey Island Red Boat by Ian Beck

A Little Gem by name (from Barrington Stoke’s Early Reader series) and a little gem by nature, Ian Beck writes a story that makes you want to sink back into a comfortable chair and be sailed away into the magic. He tells a modern day fairy tale with his own illustrations punctuating the text, and has dedicated it to his grandson. It’s exactly the tale you would imagine a grandparent telling a grandchild.

A princess lives with her father, the King, on the Island of Ashes. As the reader may expect from the name, everything on the island is grey. The sea, the sky, the land. The black and white illustrations convey this too. It rains all the time, and the month is always November. The princess feels that something is missing, and the tone of the text is muted, sad and withdrawn.

Then one day a small boat washes up on the island – and there’s something different about it. It’s red. Before long the stranger aboard has disembarked and is colouring the world with every touch of his hand. Some people are bewitched by this – the Princess and others feel “tickled” by it. But the King fears change, and takes action to prevent it, although change proves inevitable.

Ian Beck brilliantly captures the rhythm of a fairy tale or legend, as well as an underlying depth beneath the simple story. Reading the book was like feeling a warmth spread across one’s body. Children will adore the gradual introduction of colour into the illustrated landscapes, and the perfectly easy descriptions of the feelings colour gives the people on the island. Adults will see the depth of the message. You can buy it here.

fergus

Flying Fergus: The Best Birthday Bike by Chris Hoy, with Joanna Nadin, illustrated by Clare Elsom

Sometimes I feel reluctant to review ‘celeb’ books on the blog, knowing that they will probably gain a huge audience in the wider press anyway. But the publishers have paired Hoy with children’s author Joanna Nadin quite brilliantly, and the result is a hugely entertaining story.

Fergus desperately wants a Sullivan Swift for his ninth birthday. A stupendous bike with “24 gears, hydraulic brakes and state of the art suspension.” When he receives a rusty old second hand bike, he’s a little disappointed. Until he discovers something magical happens when he rides it in the right way.

The story whisks the reader into a fantasyland, complete with a princess (who wears mismatched welly boots), a Swamp of Certain Death, and some rather ridiculous rules.

Clare Elsom’s illustrations deserve great credit. The book is jam-packed with them, and each is as funny and madcap as the text. The princess in particular, with her dishevelled hair and wonky eyes, is a sight to behold. There are also two maps at the beginning.

But despite cramming this slim little early reader with oodles of fun and endless adventures, there are still some great messages within. Fergus has a heart-warming relationship with his grandfather, who is endlessly encouraging about Fergus’s ambition to win a cycle race. But he firmly believes that it’s not about luck – it’s about hard graft.

There is also some poignancy within the story as Fergus’ father has been missing from his life for nine years and Fergus still dreams of finding him and making his father proud.

There are so many facets to this book that each child will be able to extract their own enjoyment – whether it be fantasy, the reality of the bullies, a missing father, a princess, or simply ambitions and dreams. A good start to the series. Pedal your way to your copy here.

 

 

Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin

Joe All Alone

This was an unputdownable read, but tough at the same time. Not because the language is difficult, but because it doesn’t reflect well on our society and makes for uncomfortable reading. Thirteen year old Joe is left alone while his mother and her boyfriend go on holiday to Spain during half term. Although initially he seeks pleasure in his freedom – eating what he wants and playing for unlimited amounts of time on his Xbox, it soon becomes apparent that not only has he not been left enough provisions and money, but that he is lonely, ignored and certainly not mature enough to deal with his situation, despite his best attempts. He’s an exceedingly likeable character, and Joanna Nadin has captured the feelings and thoughts of a 13 year old boy very well. Told in day by day instalments, not exactly like a diary, but documenting the passing of time for the reader, Joe eventually makes friends with a fugitive girl, Asha, who’s sheltering at her mock grandfather’s flat across the way from Joe’s. This affords him some contact, and draws the mock grandfather’s attention to his plight.

The story pulls out some modern dilemmas. Joe describes his neighbours to us, but it’s clear that there is no real community among them. He also points out traits about his school – the attempt to explain budgeting to the children, the interested concern of one teacher, the role of bullying outside the classroom, as well as the wider agenda including the perceived implications of going ‘into care’, troubled children, and of course the first spark of feelings with a girl.

Saying that, there are wonderful touches of humour which lighten the atmosphere, and Joe is a reader, which comes across in his references to Huck Finn and fairy tales. From both of these, and Joe’s friendship with Asha, the reader is left with a feeling of hope and uplifted spirits in what can be changed, and what can be imagined.

I would also make one last remark – the cover for me was slightly misleading – it shows a boy seemingly jumping on his bed with joy, and bears the strapline ‘No parents, no rules, no problem?’. Although I can see how this does depict the story, I would be wary that the cover portrays it more as a ‘Home Alone’ type venture, whereas in actual fact this was quite a dark moral tale for our times.

You can buy it here from Waterstones, or see the Amazon side bar.

I highly recommend. For ages 11+