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Big names try to captivate small readers

Books by celebrities increasingly aim at the younger set, but when these authors miss their target, the criticism can carry an extra sting.

By MARGO HAMMOND
Published November 21, 2005


More than 5,000 children's books are now published each year, a threefold increase from a decade ago, according to a study by the University of Kentucky.

Who's writing all those books?

A lot of celebrities. Will Smith, Jay Leno, Maria Shriver, Katie Couric, Heather French, and Dr. Laura Schlessinger are among the many big names who have written books for kids. Some - like Julie Andrews Edwards and Jamie Lee Curtis - are actually pretty good at it. Others, like Madonna, are not.

The most recent is Sir Paul McCartney, weighing in with High in the Clouds, which he co-wrote with author Philip Ardagh. High in the Clouds is the story of a squirrel named Wirral (that's the name of the former Beatle's hometown), and in the first six pages the little creature's mother is crushed to death when a tree is felled by greedy developers. When McCartney read the story to a group of children, he heard from his first critic: a little boy in the audience who wanted to know why an author would come up with such a sad story for children.

Ouch.

And then there are the latest children's books by the late John Denver, Billy Joel and Lee Ann Womack - or, more accurately, their songs masquerading as children's books. Take Me Home, Country Roads; New York State of Mind; and I Hope You Dance, lushly illustrated kids' books, all are accompanied by a CD of the song, of course.

Little Stevie Wonder by Quincy Troupe comes with two songs - Fingertips (Part 2) and Uptight (Everything's Alright) - but at least it also tells the story of Stevland Judkins Morris Hardaway, the blind musician who signed with Motown Records at the age of 10 and who at 13, as Little Stevie Wonder, had the number one song in the country.

A lot of adult writers also are writing for children, including Michael Chaban, Walter Mosley, Carl Hiaasen, James Patterson, Joyce Carol Oates, John Irving and David Baldacci. Hiaasen's latest, Flush, is hilarious, but as John Feinstein, author of A Good Walk Spoiled, and Sir Paul have discovered, kids can be brutal critics. When Feinstein asked his son to read his young adult novel, Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery, 13-year old Danny wasn't as polite as the sports writer's adult editors usually are. "He'd say, "Dad, this is boring, ' " Feinstein told Regis Behe at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Double ouch.

All this interest in children's books, prompted in part by the success of J.K. Rowling, who made writing for children seem cool (not to mention lucrative), is good, I guess. I just wonder whether we are sending the wrong message to kids. Isn't the story supposed to be more important than the author?

* * *

PICKS FOR KIDS

Here are St. Petersburg Times book editor Margo Hammond's picks of recently published children's books.

Kamishibai Man by Allen Say

Houghton Mifflin, $17

In Japan, men used to call children to their kamishibai ("paper theater") with wooden clappers to tell them stories, a practice that died out with the advent of television. Using two different art styles for the past and the present, Caldecott Medal-winner Say tells a story within a story about one of those kamishibai men who returns to his post to find he has not been entirely forgotten.

Prehistoric Actual Size by Steve Jenkins

Houghton Mifflin, $16

With this book, kids into dinosaurs - and what kid isn't? - can peer into the mouth of a 45-foot giganotosaurus, with its half-foot-long teeth. The book's centerfold shows the actual size of a Dsungaripterus head. The flying reptile had a wingspan of 10 feet.

The Girl from Chimel by Rigoberta Menchu

House of Anansi Press, $16.95

Menchu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her human rights work in Guatemala among the Maya Indians, tells stories of her peasant grandparents and parents and the lush land she grew up in, evoking a time when her people lived in harmony with nature. Colorful illustrations are by Mexican artist Domi.

B is for Bookworm: A Library Alphabet by Anita Prieto, illustrated by Renee Graef

Sleeping Bear Press, $16.95

Why not start kids out early in learning about the library? Beginning with A is for Author, this abecedary teaches young children the alphabet while their older siblings can read interesting facts about libraries around the world.

Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth

Scholastic Press, $16.95

A giant panda with a red umbrella appears at the house of Addy, Michael and Karl with exciting stories to tell. Stillwater the bear tells them three classic Zen shorts about a poor man who teaches a robber a lesson in kindness, a farmer who knows that fortune and misfortune are not always easy to predict, and a monk who learns how to carry the burdens of his life. The children fall in love with Stillwater and you will, too.

The Good Lion by Beryl Markham

Houghton Mifflin, $16

In The Good Lion, adapted from Markham's autobiography West with the Night, the young Beryl tells the story of how "as a small girl, I was eaten by a lion." Beryl's encounter with the "tame" lion named Paddy, which actually ends up badly for Paddy not Beryl, may change your notion of man's dominance over nature.

[Last modified November 18, 2005, 11:16:04]


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