Celebrity comics are taking over children’s literature. Hmm, says comedian and children’s author Catie Wilkins.
Illustration By Louise Boulter
In the bloodbath that has become attempting to get paid for creative work – such as writing children’s books – we have a new scapegoat. Yes, we’ve moved on from blaming ebooks and the internet for giving everything away for free: the new villains are celebrity comedians.
They come over here, taking our jobs. And they’re worse than the fictitious Eastern European immigrants the far right keep banging on about, because they don’t even need the money.
What are you doing writing children’s books, millionaire Russell Brand? If you’re bored, make a sitcom or something. Don’t start hoovering up the only remaining, precious, ever-decreasing broadsheet space dedicated to children’s writers. They’ve sacked The Times’ children’s books reviewer for crying out loud. You don’t need it. That’s for us. And we can’t even get it. (Is what some people say.) (Not me. I’m cool about it.) (Totally fine with it. Totally.)
It’s not just because I know I almost definitely wouldn’t have got that broadsheet space anyway. And not just because I write children’s books and do stand-up comedy, so am kind of a double agent, sticking up for some of my ilk.
There’s more at play in this debate than appears on the surface. This isn’t simply an accusation that celebrities are cynically cashing in on their popularity for a quick buck. It seems more about the very idea of who should be allowed to write a children’s book – something far more important.
I don’t feel that partaking in more than one creative outlet is somehow disloyal. If you love comedy, surely you love all comedy. You wouldn’t just love only radio comedy. That would be like saying you love the colour blue, but only in the sky. Yet the complaint isn’t entirely that people are switching genres; it’s that famous people are switching genres.
The argument, as I understand it, runs thus: these jack-the-lad, successful comedians (David Walliams, Russell Brand, Ricky Gervais, David Baddiel etc) come in, use their fame to flog a children’s book and land straight at the top of the charts, bypassing all the nobodies, just because they had the forethought to become megastars.
These people are all individuals, with different reasons for everything they do, but because they’re all comedians we’re allowed to lump them together now.
But: no one especially complained in the 1980s when Michael Palin brought out Small Harry and the Toothache Pills. Or when Roald Dahl wrote for adults or did Tales of the Unexpected on TV.
So the problem can’t be that we want everyone to simply stay in their boxes, and it can’t be that we necessarily mind when comedians do children’s books. Perhaps as long as it’s with the caveat that the comedians in question are national treasures or “deserve” to somehow.
Yet most of the comedians I mentioned earlier are known in at least some small way for laddish or controversial comedy. It’s one thing for a beloved ex-Python to write a children’s book; maybe it’s quite another for that bloke who’s always going on about shagging to have a pop.
Maybe there’s just more trust that Michael Palin will use his exquisite wit, silliness, kindness and satire for good. Young minds are impressionable. Maybe there’s this secret fear:
We can’t have these people writing children’s books. The next generation will become sex-obsessed, navel-gazing yet socially aware satirists, who prank-call ageing actors from hit TV comedies. They’ll say they love women but still come across as kind of sexist. The next generation will be too edgy and never vote. UKIP will get in. We can’t let these people write children’s books or the future will be racist.
Writing children’s books is simultaneously seen as very important (it’s the future; it’s shaping young minds) and yet often disrespected (oh, was writing for adults too difficult for you?). A bit like childcare in general. And kind of like comedy used to be (until stadium tours took off and the top TV comics got mega rich).
So what are the actual essentials for writing children’s books?
You mainly need to be really funny. Children love comedy. The average child laughs more than 300 times a day; the average adult laughs less than 20.
Comedians writing children’s books actually seems a pretty natural marriage; there are more than just superficial similarities between the two art forms.
Children are a lot like comedy audiences: they are offensively honest. They won’t be polite to spare your feelings if they don’t like something. If they’re bored, you’ll know about it.
And if they’re bored they won’t even finish the book, let alone recommend it to their friends, meaning no buzz in the playground to spread the word.
During the school events that I’ve done as a children’s writer, various librarians have told me how popular David Walliams’ books are. They’ve had to buy lots of copies as they are always checked out of the library. They’ve been credited with getting “reluctant” boys reading more.
Ultimately, the real task of a children’s writer is to improve literacy and get kids reading. Who deserves to do that is whoever can do the job. Being a celebrity is a definite leg up, but it is not a guarantee of success. You still need to have a quality product.
None of this helps the non-famous, non-celebrity, but absolutely hilarious children’s writers of course. On the upside, though, the more business children’s books do, the more it can do. If funny books become bigger business more publishers will be looking for them. So in theory everyone will eventually benefit. In theory.
Catie Wilkins is a writer, comedian and children’s author who likes jokes and stories.