- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily … celebrity children’s books are such a scheme.

OK, maybe that’s a little harsh. But consider the long and growing list of celeb authors: Madonna, Billy Crystal, Jay Leno, Julie Andrews, Spike Lee, Jerry Seinfeld, Shaquille O’Neal, John Lithgow, Jamie Lee Curtis…

Isn’t there something a little suspect about this roster, something that sets off your greed-dar?

Billy Joel is the latest addition; his “Goodnight My Angel” is due in September from Scholastic, “Harry Potter’s” U.S. publisher. A second, “New York State of Mind,” is slated for next year.

The man can’t operate a motor vehicle safely. What makes him think he can write a children’s book?

The children’s book market is a tough one, according to Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum. “It’s the parent and not the kids buying the book, and adults are very selective about what they buy for their children,” he told CNN.

Still, the genre has its attractions for the busy and risk-intolerant celeb. For starters, a children’s book, unlike, say, a new CD or a movie, requires relatively minimal effort. Children’s books are necessarily short; the job of illustrating them is arguably more labor-intensive.

For another thing, children’s books aren’t like that other crossover into celebrity authorship, the autobiography. The possibility of a children’s book not selling well poses less risk of reputation deflation.

Consider: If ex-president Bill Clinton wrote a children’s book — don’t laugh — and it bombed, he might have to endure a day or two of mostly respectful ridicule in the media.

But if his forthcoming memoir “My Life,” for which he reportedly received a $10 million advance from Alfred A Knopf, bombs, that would qualify as politically significant.

If a children’s book succeeds — Madonna’s “The English Roses” has sold about 500,000 worldwide — then great. If not, it’s no skin off their noses. All upside potential, no downside risk. Nice, huh?

My hunch is that money is at best an ancillary motive for these author wannabes.

One notices two characteristics about this crop of celebrity authors: They’re already filthy rich, and they’re often approaching mid-, even late-midlife.

For a rich, aging celebrity, a children’s book offers something guilt-free. It’s a way to, as they say, “give something back,” especially to children.

After decades of striving and careerism, a children’s book is, perhaps, the celebrity’s way of reconnecting with reality, with normal family life.

And because children are so sentimentalized in our culture, writing a children’s book offers a patina of selflessness.

Madonna’s case is instructive here. As has been widely reported and speculated over, Madonna is deeply into kabala, a mystical offshoot of Judaism.

One of the attractions of kabala, as it’s practiced in the celebrity subculture, is that its rabbis preach an I’m-OK-you’re-OK approach to fame and money.

It’s fine to be rich, they say. Don’t sell all your possessions and give all the money to the poor. Keep it. There are other kinds of good works in store for you.

Like writing children’s books.

Madonna’s five-book series — the third, “Yakov and the Seven Thieves,” comes out June 21 — was directly inspired by her involvement in kabala, according to press reports. Each story is connected to precepts Madonna learned in her new faith.

The moral of “The English Roses” is, “Don’t envy what others have; be content with yourself.”

Hmmm. Would I be uncharitable to connect the following dots?

I’m Madonna … I’m rich … My faith tells me it’s morally acceptable to be rich … Don’t envy me because I’m rich.

“I’ve learned to be unselfish and have a greater understanding of the power of words,” Madonna told People magazine at the publication of “Roses.” “I want to do good things for the world.”

Gee, thanks, Madge.

Now, not all the celebrity children’s books are that bad. Miss Andrews, the singer-actress, has 15 children’s books to her name (the latest is “Dragon: Hound of Honor”) and seems to take her literary sideline seriously.

For sheer narcissism, Mr. Crystal’s “I Already Know I Love You” comes pretty close to Madonna-dom, though.

A bedtime story inspired by anticipating the birth of his granddaughter, “I Love You” is strangely granddaddy-centric. It’s all about how he can’t wait to meet her and take her to baseball games.

Enough about you, darling. Isn’t pop-pop absolutely mah-velous?

Mr. O’Neal isn’t far behind Mr. Crystal. In “Shaq and the Beanstalk and Other Very Tall Tales,” the L.A. Laker giant interpolates himself as character in time-honored fairy tales.

Imagine the chutzpah. But what critic in his right mind would give Shaq a bad review?

Mr. Leno’s “If Roast Beef Could Fly,” based on family-barbecue shenanigans he remembers from childhood, isn’t half-bad. It’s well-illustrated and includes ethnic humor that’s quite bold for children’s books.

The Scottish side of his family, Mr. Leno writes, is thrifty, unlike his looser Italian relatives.

Now, isn’t that just the kind of thing you want your children to think about when falling asleep?

If, in his next book, “The Tonight Show” host writes about a boy named Dave who envies his friend’s indomitable Nielsen ratings, then we’ll know he’s lost it, too.

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