If Celebrities Could Write Books

What adjustments must a late-night talk show comedian make in catering to an audience of four-year-olds? Not many, as evidenced by “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno’s foray into the world of children’s publishing with his book If Roast Beef Could Fly, a cute retelling of a Leno family story that landed in bookstores two weeks ago.

Even though Leno’s medium and audience are different, the message, or lack thereof, is the same: entertainment for entertainment’s sake. With each stop on his publicity campaign, Leno made sure readers knew that he promised neither a sappy heartwarming tale, nor a hit-you-between-the-eyes take-home message that contributes to the collective inner growth of all four-year-olds.

“There’s no real moral other than don’t stick your comb in roast beef, ” Leno told USA Today.

The exorbitant amount of publicity If Roast Beef Could Fly has received courtesy of its author is perhaps more notable than the book’s endearing caricatures of a baby-faced, pointy-chinned kid-Leno or even the storyline itself. An appearance on “The Today Show” followed by a stint filling in for Kelly Ripa on “Live with Regis and Kelly,” combined with an appearance with Barbara Walters and the gang on “The View”—all airing on the same morning—seemed nauseating overkill, even to fans of Leno’s “Tonight Show” monologues and incessant chin jokes.

Thus what seems like nothing more than a funny and innocently nostalgic tale of a family meal gone wrong has provoked a cultural inspection that brings to the table celebrities and their publishers, other children’s writers, pop cultural critics, parents and children alike.

At one extreme, critics protest that celebrity children’s book authorship is deadening American culture. Author John Roberts, in a Washington Times editorial, diagnosed the deadly disease of “celebrity sclerosis” whereby big-name stars “clog America’s creative arteries” and block a naturally rich flow of art and entertainment. Children’s book authorship is but one easy and convenient artery to clog.

The next logical question, then, is: Where does the creativity and talent go? Roberts might argue that the “heart” of the new creative body-machine is the great media hubs of the world, New York and Los Angeles. And since the heart pumps to the beat of big media conglomerates, they determine who and what passes through and what gets bypassed.

Representatives of the media industry, however, offer a different account of cultural consumption. Whereas critics like Roberts argue that a celebrity’s name on a cultural product offers a “safe profit,” book publishers and others invested in the culture production industry are hesitant to confirm such a claim. David Gale, Editorial Director for Simon & Schuster’s Books for Young Readers Division countered in an interview with the Associated Press that a celebrity author is a bigger risk than a first time author. Celebrity authors may cause resentment in other writers, and their works are judged more critically by consumers.

“When [a book] comes from a celebrity, it actually sends up a red flag,” Gale said.

This idea is supported by the fact that not all celebrity children’s books are created equal. There are clear successes and failures with sales figures to back this up: Katie Couric’s and Jerry Seinfeld’s kids’ books? Failures. Books by Jamie Lee Curtis and John Lithgow? Successes.

Another question provoked by Leno and other celebrity children’s authors asks: Who is the audience—the parent with the purchasing power or the child reader? Parents are the gatekeepers and the ultimate actors behind the sales of these books. But some parents who review children’s books on online review forums such as Amazon.com give detailed accounts of their children’s boredom, disinterest or genuine dislike of their books, and they have taken action accordingly. Though children are at the end of the consumption chain, their position is important nonetheless.

So is the issue that children are not equipped with the same critical eye toward popular culture, as problematic as it seems? Obviously children are a vulnerable population in terms of marketing and advertising cultural products. Do books, however, strike an especially sensitive nerve? Are books the one cultural medium requiring the most rigorous standards of quality preservation due to their unique place in a child’s learning environment? We’ve slowly begun to accept, if not embrace, popular culture’s place in the high school and college classroom as material that enhances critical dialogue, stirs debate on current issues and lets us contextualize academia in new ways. But what, if anything, can we make of books like basketball star Shaquille O’Neal’s rewrite of an old fable, which was published by Scholastic under the name Shaq and the Beanstalk?

Or consider Yakov and the Seven Thieves, penned by none other than the queen of pop and mother of two, Madonna. After she secured a deal to publish six children’s stories in 100 countries and 42 languages last summer, the New York Daily News sarcastically told its readers to “forget that her last book was an outrageous and provocative collection of thoughts and semi-porn shots called sex.” With her first children’s book, The English Roses, Madonna was said to “go between the covers again, only this time it’s strictly kids stuff.” Perhaps the Guardian put it best in the title of an article on author-Madonna: “Pop icon, writer, whatever.”

The “whatever” seems to be the general consensus of all parties. Celebrities and their publishers can no longer be promised safe success for their books. Critics cannot protect “real” writers and artists from the superficial appeal of celebrities. Parents cannot completely shelter their children from the influence of Shaq or Seinfeld, Madonna or Leno. The only thing we know with certainty is that it is completely uncertain whether roast beef could really fly…off of bookstore shelves.

—Columnist Lisa M. Puskarcik can be reached at puskarc@fas.harvard.edu.