How often do you buy a book for your child based on who wrote it? Turns out, more often than you think.
When we buy books for our children, we tend to play it safe and choose books written by authors we know. Ruskin Bond’s immense success to this day is largely due to parents buying Bond’s books because they grew up reading (and loving) his books too. Perhaps we are assured of a certain quality from the author. They might meet our expectations of what we want our children to be reading and we know the story will not take any surprise dangerous turns. We may choose books by an author whom we know because of a certain level of comfort attached to them.
But what of celebrity authors?
International children’s literature is basking in the glow of celebrity authors. In the spotlight are books written by Meghan Markle, Reese Witherspoon, Madonna, David Williams, Matthew McConaughey, Barack Obama, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Myers, Serena Williams, Channing Tatum, Chris Colfer, Natalie Portman, LeBron James, Marie Kondo, Jamie Oliver and so many more! Books written by celebrity authors seem to always find spot on bestseller lists and enjoy pride of place, right in the front, at bookstore displays.
The list above has actors, singers, late-night TV hosts, sportspersons, and even a former head of state. So, does that mean anyone can write a children’s book?
Writing for children
Quite the opposite, according to Sohini Mitra, Publisher–Children’s, Penguin Books. “Writing, much like any other art, involves a specialised skillset, more so when you’re writing for kids,” she said. “It’s about building a world that kids will connect with or escape into. Writing for children requires humongous amounts of creativity, imagination, sensitivity, and care. It requires expertise, and therefore not a privilege that comes with one being a celeb or in a position of power. It requires dedicated time, interest, and effort, as well as an understanding of the age group to be able to connect with them.”
In India, unlike the West, there have been fewer children’s books authored by celebrities. But the trend is picking up. Over the years, we have seen books written by Maneka Gandhi (There is a Monster Under My Bed), Nandana Dev Sen (In My Heart and Mambi and the Forest Fire), Karan Johar (Big Thoughts of Little Luv), Tisca Chopra (What’s Up With Me?) and more recently Soha Ali Khan and Kunal Khemmu’s Inni and Bobo series about a little girl and her puppy. Parenting is a life-changing experience and most of these authors have gone on record to say they wrote these books for their children or that the stories have been inspired by their own experiences as a parent. Parents buy books written by celebrities because despite the author not being known to their target audience (children), parents are accustomed to buying things based on who is selling them.
But while books written by celebrities in the UK and USA enjoy celebrity status, the same isn’t true for the Indian market. According to the NLF Report: Children’s Literature in India 2022, books written by celebrity authors haven’t managed to get the expected traction from readers. The report states the inability of the authors to engage with their target audience as one of the major reasons.
Award-winning author of children’s books Vibha Batra said, “Does a children’s book written by a celebrity author get an astronomical advance? Does it get a huge marketing budget and enviable shelf space? Probably. Does it translate into whopping sales figures, though? Not necessarily. You can pump top dollar (or rupee) and you can go all out with the promotions, but that only goes so far. In the end, it’s all down to the readers. If they don’t like the book, they don’t like the book, regardless of whose name is on the cover.
“Perhaps a famous face is a factor for grown-up readers. Would a child even know or care about the celebrity status of the author? Would they even throw the full pester power and insist their parents pick up the book? Or, would they want to buy a book by an author whose work they’ve previously enjoyed? Besides, as they say in advertising, great publicity only makes a not-so-great product fail faster.”
With less than satisfactory sales, is it worth the trouble for celebrities to quit their day job and turn into authors? I’m reminded of the end of Nandana Dev Sen’s Mambi and the Forest Fire, where Mambi the monkey tells Tonga the turtle and Koko the crow, “Let’s not ever wish we were someone else. Because each of us has a gift that is very, very special.”
Maybe it is time to take advice from a monkey.