Famous first words: how celebrities made their way on to children's bookshelves (2023)

What do David Walliams, Lil Nas X, Ricky Gervais, Dermot O’Leary, Geri Halliwell, Bruce Springsteen, Miranda Hart, Greg James, Chris Hoy, Frank Lampard, Clare Balding, Konnie Huq, Marie Kondo, Paul McCartney, Julian Clary, Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Fogle, Tom Fletcher, Julianne Moore, Lupita Nyong’o, Sandi Toksvig, Natalie Portman, Spike Lee, Fearne Cotton, Russell Brand, Pharrell Williams, David Baddiel, Simon Cowell, Danny Baker, Prince Charles, Coleen Rooney, Madonna, LeBron James, Lorraine Kelly, Ben Miller, Sarah Ferguson, Adrian Edmondson, Jamie Lee Curtis and Keith Richards have in common?

They are all children’s authors. And celebrities. Which makes them, depending on who you speak to, either the saviours of publishing or proof of its decline. And of the many celebrities who have tried their luck in children’s books, Walliams is the giant. Since his 2008 debut, The Boy in the Dress, he has sold more than 40m books and racked up more than 180 weeks at No 1 in the children’s charts; a feat even JK Rowling has never achieved. He alone accounted for 14.4% of HarperCollins’ £133m revenue last year, and singlehandedly sold a third of the top 50 children’s books of the year: 2.4m copies from 11 books, compared to 4.7m between the rest.

“Richard Osman may have a very successful career as a crime author, but he’s never going to sell a third of all adult fiction sales,” says children’s author Gareth P Jones. “But with kids, the people buying the books are not the people reading the books. Parents buy into the idea of ‘anything that gets children reading’, and they see that he is popular – and then he gets more popular.”

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Around 200,000 books are published in the UK each year, and around 10% of these are children’s books, which make up a whopping 29% of sales – and the figure is rising every year. Children’s literature is clearly lucrative, but it is foundational, too; this is why it can feel distasteful when it seems as though a celebrity might be using a book – sometimes not even writing it themselves – to further a brand, like a perfume or a watch. But there are also celebrities who write perfectly harmless books with nice messages that children completely ignore. There are even good ones, too. And then there are the unoriginal books that are piled high and sold cheap to children around the world.

But how do we measure the impact of celebrity authors? We will never know who would have been published instead if, say, Jamie Lee Curtis never wrote a picture book about selfies. Publishing is an industry that has failed at diversity; last week a survey of 60,000 UK children found a third felt they did not see themselves in the books they read, across class, race and gender. No one knows what anyone else is paid before royalties, but when some celebrity deals are referred to as “seven figures”, and children’s authors regularly report advances as low as £2,000, it is easy to understand why they suspect they are losing out on money and marketing in an industry built on the idea that 10% of books will pay for the other 90%.

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“Nobody talks about money in this industry. Everybody feels a little afraid of publishers for fear of losing opportunities,” says James Mayhew, author of the Katie books. As Jones says: “The people offering the celebrities the big wads of cash are the exact same people we hope will maybe spend a bit of money on us.”

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“The big advances are going to the people who least need them,” says Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the Society of Authors (SoA). And when their books are aggressively discounted, then promoted on buses and billboards and even “Happy Meals” (in the case of Walliams), the “biggest sources of footfall in bookshops are the ones that make them the least amount of money,” says James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones.

“I don’t believe that all celebrity authors are terrible, I truly enjoy some of their work, but it is undeniable that they do suck a lot of attention away,” says Kiran Millwood Hargrave, award-winning author of The Girl of Ink & Stars. “And the opportunities to get seen are so small. It feels as if celebrity authors aren’t allowed to fail, but the rest of us are.”

“The main reason I started writing kids’ books was because I had three boys who I wanted to write something for,” says Charlie Higson, the actor, comedian and popular author of the Young Bond books and the Enemy series. “I’m a writer, it’s what I do. I’d written four adult books in the early 1990s, and a huge amount of stuff for TV. Why shouldn’t I write some kids’ books as well?”

Some celebrities write very good children’s books. Among the authors, parents, booksellers and librarians I speak to, Higson and Baddiel are the two names most frequently praised. BBC radio host Greg James and McFly musician Tom Fletcher are also respected for the support they show other authors. Chris Hoy is applauded for openly crediting his ghostwriter Joanna Nadin for their Flying Fergus books.

“Where I draw a line in the sand is at this idea that children’s books are there for people like Simon Cowell or Madonna as an extra way of making more money,” says Amanda Craig, author and children’s book critic. “The real evil of this is they have no talent, yet they mop up a publisher’s marketing budget and they crowd out the good stuff. This field, which was once really important, is being swamped by people who think they’ll be as rich as Rowling.”

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“Kids only know me as a kids’ writer,” Baddiel says. He is the author of seven children’s books including The Parent Agency. “When I go into schools and read to children, I sometimes let them know that I was the bloke who co-wrote Three Lions, and they can’t compute it. Obviously, their parents might know. And the ability of someone with a pre-existing name to get published exists. I appreciate how frustrating that can be for writers who don’t have that power. But I would argue that lumping me, Walliams, Higson and Ben Miller together with, I dunno, Geri Halliwell (sorry, I like her) is not correct. We were all writers already. We all had written loads of comedy – a form close to children’s literature in some ways – and some of us had written adult novels. And we have all proved ourselves beyond one book. A name can make a big splash and get a big marketing drive, undeniably, for bringing out one, probably ghost-written, children’s book. But to build a large audience over many books, and create a world for them is, I think, different and not reliant on that publicity in the end. It’s about the stories.”

“Of course, if you get your books sold in places like Tesco that’s a big boost,” Higson says. “But there’s a misconception among some struggling authors out there that if only Walliams’s books weren’t filling the shelves, their own books would. Tesco sells the books that people buy. It’s not their job to create new authors.”

Others authors argue that it is their publisher’s job, however, and publisher’s attentions are focused elsewhere. Supermarkets, which usually only have one shelf for kids’ books, accounted for 16% of all children’s book sales last year. Of the 50-odd children’s books currently stocked in Tesco stores, 40% are by three celebrities: Walliams, Fletcher and Miller. Another 20% are by JK Rowling. And in November, Charlie Redmayne, chief executive of HarperCollins, home to Walliams and Baddiel, confirmed that big names were only getting bigger during lockdown, as publishers were forking out “extraordinary amounts of money” to familiar names. “I think that’s again a very challenging thing for our core business which isn’t just the big celebrity books and the big brands,” he said.

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“The tall trees have done well and taken all the light,” Solomon says. “Supermarkets stock a very small range. Amazon’s algorithms work by telling you about bestsellers. Lockdown has favoured bigger right the way across – bigger publishers and bigger authors.”

“Would Malorie Blackman have made it now? I don’t know,” says author Fleur Hitchcock. “The top 50% of the income is sucked up and recycled with the celebrities and everybody else is fighting around at the bottom. People are giving up and the celebrities will be the last ones left. As any gardener will tell you, a lawn is a disaster if it’s just made of grass.”

Children’s authors are less concerned about individual celebrities, and more worried about the wider implications for their livelihoods. One writer recalled his publicist advising him to buy copies of his own book and give them to Waterstones booksellers, telling him: “David Walliams wasn’t successful until he started reaching out to bookshops.” Another was told he wouldn’t be published as he didn’t have “an established fanbase”.

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When asked about eye-watering advances and royalties for the highest paid authors, Stephen Lotinga, CEO of the Publishers Association, is unapologetic, arguing that “the few who end up being successful, they pay for all the rest. Undermining that ecology doesn’t lead to more investment in ‘real’ authors, it leads to us being less able to invest as widely as we do.”

Charlotte Eyre, who reports on children’s books for the Bookseller, disagrees. “When publishers claim it trickles down, I think this is where most people go: ‘Hang on’,” she says. “I see brilliant books coming out all the time by unknown authors, and none of them get any marketing.”

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“Publishers always say these books pay for everybody else, but I’ve never seen any figures to support that. If you put a million pounds into any book, you’ll get your million pounds back,” says author Philip Womack. “The music industry uses this exact same argument,” says writer Ross Montgomery. “But they also get their big stars to collaborate with new ones, send them on tour together, promote them to a wider audience. At least there’s a platform being shared. And I don’t see publishers doing that.”

Higson feels the market is just crowded. “There are now probably 100 times more kids’ books to choose from than there were when I was growing up. You’ve got to shout loud and sing and dance to get people to read your books,” he says. “If you got into this game to make money, you’re an idiot. Not every writer can be a bestseller.”

Earlier this year, food writer Jack Monroe made headlines when she took to Twitter to complain about Walliams’s books, which she called “sneering classist fatshaming grim nonsense”. (In a statement at the time, HarperCollins said: “David Walliams’s books have a diverse readership which is reflected in their content.”) “The most interesting thing was not the number of people agreeing with Monroe, but the number who were surprised,” Montgomery says. “There is a massive disparity between what children are being provided with, and what parents might actually want their kids to read.”

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Some adults argue that the fat jokes and farts are part of a grotesque literary tradition that takes in Roald Dahl; others that we should do better. But with so many books published, many bookshops shuttered for most of this year and almost a fifth of the UK’s libraries closing over the last 10 years, the truth is that most parents just don’t have the opportunity to engage much with what their children are reading.

“I tell customers, the books your children read now are what will make them the person of 20 years’ time,” says one Waterstones bookseller. “That’s why booksellers are so important. You’ve got to have adults who will say: ‘How do you feel about your child reading about Page 3 girls [mentioned in Walliams’s book Billionaire Boy]?’ And then the parents go: ‘Oh no, maybe not.’”

In the 1960s, newspapers lapped up stories about snobbish librarians instituting “bans” on Enid Blyton’s books, purportedly because they were popular and undemanding. In reality, many of the librarians were just trying to leave space for authors other than Blyton, who wrote more than 600 books and sold very well. Today, some librarians use the same approach for celebrities. Joanna de Guia is a school librarian who has worked in both state and private schools, and notices a socioeconomic divide. “State schools, if they even have a library, rely on donated books, so they get thousands of these celebrity books. The kids recognise the name, so they choose it – but they don’t always go on reading anything else,” she says. “I now work in an affluent school and we don’t really stock the celebrities. It’s not snobbishness, we know they can get those themselves. Our job is about broadening awareness of what’s out there.”

For most parents, their awareness extends to the two Cs: classics and celebrities. Look past the celebrities on bestseller lists each year and you’ll always see the same range of other familiar names: Rowling, Julia Donaldson, Jeff Kinney, Eric Carle.

“Parents and children want to be sure they’re reading what everybody else is reading.” says Julia Eccleshare, a children’s book expert. Parents have always turned to books they know for their children, but she also believes Harry Potter started a new era of “collective reading”: “The notion of being a private reader with your own book was completely turned on its head.” This is good in some ways, she thinks, but it means “publishers can’t resist publishing celebrities, because half the work is done for them. Some celebrities do write good books – but you have to hope it’s a stepping stone to other things and often, it isn’t.”

“When given options, children become very selective about their reading; they have very discerning tastes. If that’s all they are given, then that’s all they will pick,” says Dawn Finch, a children’s author and librarian who also sells books at Orb’s Bookshop in Aberdeenshire, which runs a pop-up to visit towns with no bookshop. “In poorer areas where there isn’t a bookshop, where parents only see books on the top three pages on Amazon, in Tesco and the post office – when all those spaces are occupied by the same four or five celebrity authors, then there is not really any choice.”


“We think this isn’t a middle-class problem. There are parents throughout the country who really want their kids to read, and who are entirely unaware of all these fantastic authors that we’ve got,” adds Eyre.

Orb’s doesn’t stock many celebrities, Finch says, as “we know that Tesco is going to sell them at half price. We can’t compete with that, so we don’t.” Waterstones can, though they have to heavily discount them to match Amazon and supermarkets selling them at a loss. “I don’t like the fact that I don’t make any money selling these books, but I do like that they bring kids into shops,” James Daunt says. “They are the gateway drug, particularly for boys who don’t read very well – this is where they get hooked. Reading is reading. Now, this is quite a long way from Dostoevsky, but it is the path to Dostoevsky.”

Many authors, however, disagree. “People sometimes say, ‘Oh, my kids love the books by this celebrity, they got them reading.’ That’s great. But it could have been another book if they’d known about it,” says Mayhew. “I think it’s very misleading to suggest that celebrities are the only people who could get children reading. There are thousands of other books that children might have enjoyed just as much. It really comes down to what’s available to them.” A harried busy parent might assuage their guilt with the adage “whatever gets them reading”, “but that is desperation,” says Amanda Craig. “Writing a children’s book is an extraordinary art, and children deserve the very best.” And “we don’t say ‘anything that gets kids eating’,” Finch adds. “We shouldn’t say it about reading.”


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