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The Battle for Kiddie Lit

When I was eight years old, I won an award for a story I wrote and was given an all-expenses-paid trip to a conference for "young writers" in Tampa, Florida, which was nearly two hours away from my house via a big yellow bus. For more than a decade, this trip (estimated retail value: 45 dollars) represented the greatest financial windfall of my writing career. But the prize-winning story in question, a tale of a nerdy kid named John who gets the wrong kind of Swatch watch but in doing so stumbles into popularity, reeks of literary incompetence. Hackneyed and driven entirely by a desire to use clichés (the closing sentence is, "John felt cool as a cucumber"), its only recommending feature is that it was printed in my awful handwriting, mercifully rendering large swaths of it illegible.

My first real check for writing (15 dollars for a book review) came in 2000, and I've been awfully fortunate with regard to writing since then. I've sold a book and had the chance to tell a lot of ex-girlfriend jokes on NPR, but I have not made much money. By my calculations, I've made about $3,500 per year writing in the past four years, which works out to a bit less than five cents per published word. (Writing for web mags doesn't help, of course. 215 words already and not a penny in sight.) I'm not complaining, mind you. I figure that 5 cents per word is just about fair. I'm not that much better now than I was in third grade, really. Just the other day I almost described a book as a "heartsong" before realizing that I'd stolen that made-up word from 13-year-old poet Mattie Stepanek (God rest his soul).

My aforementioned book is a novel for older teenagers. You've heard of the writers I look to as role models -- J. D. Salinger, Mark Twain, John Knowles -- but you probably haven't heard of my contemporaries --Melvin Burgess, E. R. Frank, Chris Crutcher. Children's presses publish such novels, even though YA fiction these days tends to be what is called "edgy." My first novel, for instance, features a fair bit of drinking and smoking and a couple of very explicit sex scenes. Also, the word "fuck" is used about 48 times ($2.90). But fucks and shots of Jack Daniels aside, my first book is being published by Dutton Children's Books.

This connection to kiddie lit has made me privy to a huge debate currently raging in the world of childrens books. And no, it's not whether kids' books should feature whiskey and bad words. That debate was settled long ago (Huck Finn was published for kids and contains a fair bit of both). The debate today is over celebrity authors.

And they are legion. Madonna, for instance, has a 5-book, purportedly 7-figure picture book deal. The first of these books, The English Roses, sold nicely even though it was horrible; the second and third are already out, and sales have been brisk -- but disappointing in the context of her tremendous advance. But Madonna is only the beginning. Singer-songwriter Dar Williams just published a novel for middle readers; Henry "I Was the Fonz" Winkler has written several books in his Hank Zipzer series. John Lithgow and Jamie Lee Curtis are veteran picture book writers. Billy Crystal, Jimmy Fallon, Paul McCartney, Jay Leno, Leann Rimes; Will Smith -- it's like reading a list of celebs who secretly do commercials in Japan.

And they all get huge advances. The American rights to Paul McCartney's kid's book were expected to sell for more than a million dollars -- a pretty penny indeed for a singer whose most significant achievement during the lives of his preschool-aged audience has been to marry a land-mine activist.

Such huge advances require massive marketing campaigns to try and make the books bestsellers, which diverts marketing attention away from good children's books by mere writers. Even with huge marketing pushes, many celeb books don't earn out (i.e., the authors don't earn back their advances). Small-time authors like myself are much more likely to earn out (my first novel will only need to sell around 6,000 copies to do so), but we are finally less profitable, because we tend to sell fewer books. Here's the question, though: Do we sell fewer books because we aren't celebrities, or do we sell fewer books because marketing departments push celebrity books harder?

As an eight-year-old who fancied himself rather talented, there were two things I did not yet understand about being a writer:

  1. Being a writer involves quite a lot of writing, which is lonely and frequently boring, and relatively little of the excitement and fulfillment that one feels on a big yellow bus headed for Tampa, Florida.
  2. Writing, like carpentry and gunrunning, is a business.

In the world of adult books, or even the kind of books I write, the audience of readers is directly responsible for the quality of books published. They will publish whatever we will pay for. And I'd argue that readers have done a pretty good job of late. Danielle Steele and Dan Brown may own the bestseller lists, but there is still a market (and a very profitable one) for great adult books. And so, too, with the kind of YA novels I write. You've probably never heard of M. T. Anderson, but he writes good books and makes a fair living at it.

But younger children aren't to blame for what is published, because young kids don't pick their reading lists. Parents do. And apparently they suck at it, because there is a smaller and smaller market for really good picture books. Take, for example, the existence of Billy Crystal's awful I Already Know I Love You. I consider myself a fairly passionate reader, but after spending a few minutes with Mr. Crystal's book, I wanted to give up on the enterprise permanently. You can imagine the effect it could have on a five-year-old. It is not enough to give kids books. We must give them ones that don't suck ass.

I'm not worried about rich celebrities getting richer by authoring bad picture books. Writers like me aren't underpaid. Teachers are underpaid. Supermarket checkout workers are underpaid. The vast majority of writers (myself included) perform the most minor of services. But the best, whether they write for kids or adults, expand readers' understanding of what words are, and what they do. And that's why we must not give ass-sucking books by Billy Crystal and his ilk to our children, because only great books teach us how to read.

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