Children's authors slam celebrity-heavy World Book Day lineup

Led by David Almond and Anthony McGowan, writers have spoken out against stress on famous names in works chosen for 2018 event

Top children’s authors including David Almond and Anthony McGowan have criticised a celebrity-heavy lineup of titles for next year’s World Book Day, describing the choice of books by famous names including Julian Clary and Clare Balding as patronising and demeaning.

Billed as “the world’s biggest celebration of reading”, more than 1m books by authors including Jacqueline Wilson, Francesca Simon and Julia Donaldson were given away to children for this year’s World Book Day. But when the featured authors at next year’s event were announced on Friday, including Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain and the musician Tom Fletcher as well as Clary and Balding, the Carnegie medal-winning writer Almond led a volley of criticism against organisers for overlooking children’s authors in favour of celebrity names.

Almond, who wrote the novel Island for this year’s event, took to Facebook this weekend to ask “how it is that books by a clutch of celebrities could possibly be better than those by some of the wonderful children’s authors at work today? … I guess some folk might say I’m just being elitist or something if I start going on about the choices for next year, if I allow myself to think that the nation’s children are being short-changed by this and that the nation’s authors and illustrators are being scorned, if I wonder whether the choices show a lack of true seriousness and a narrow understanding of the importance of children’s literary culture … But what the hell. That’s what I wonder, that’s what I think.”

Almond said on Monday that he was supported in his views by many of his fellow authors. “I think World Book Day is a fantastic venture so this is baffling, really. On the one hand I am angry, but on the other – what were they thinking? It’s demeaning to children, because it is assuming that children don’t read properly.”

Almond was supported by authors including Joanne Harris, who wrote on her blog that she felt “the current spate of celebrity children’s books is having a detrimental effect, not just on children’s publishing, but on the reputation of children’s writing, and even on literacy in general”.

McGowan, the author of novels including the award-winning Henry Tumour, said he had always “tried to remain sanguine” about celebrities writing children’s books. “But the decision to load the 2018 World Book Day promotion with celebrities seems to be a disaster – a step change that signals something rotten in the system.

“This year, they could have scattered gold dust over the whole operation by headlining with well-known children’s writers, and used the rest of the list to promote diversity. Instead they decided to promote not books, but the grasping celebrities – comedians and TV personalities, a decommissioned pop star … It’s a cheap and tawdry (or rather, I suppose, expensive and flashy) way of saying that fame matters more than writing talent. Next year I expect to see Kim Kardashian and whoever gets the smirk-and-sympathy vote on Strictly headlining the celebrations.”

Booksellers also reacted with dismay. Tamsin Rosewell at Kenilworth Books said that during the period that World Book Day books are sold, the bookshop would donate £1 to the Society of Authors for every customer who allowed it to recommend a favourite writer, or show them the work of the authors who have ghostwritten the celebrity books. She highlighted work by writers including Malorie Blackman, Chris Priestley, SF Said, Julian Sedgwick and Eloise Williams.

“To give children and families the impression that books with a celebrity name attached to them have been chosen above all others sends a very damaging message: to be a successful writer you need to be famous or pretty,” she added.

“Not only is this sending the wrong message entirely, but is also enormously depressing for booksellers, who work hard to introduce new readers to work by excellent writers – both new and established – and it is also singularly disheartening to authors who have a lifetime of experience and skill that adds real value to our cultural canon. It is important that children understand that the celebrity names attached to these books are not the names of the people who actually wrote them.”

In response to the criticism, World Book Day director Kirsten Grant said that the list features “a mix of names that children will already know and love, as well as those that we hope they will discover for the first time”, and that each of the fiction titles will also “contain an extract by an up-and-coming author, to enable children to continue their reading journey and discover great new authors. Yes, there are celebrity writers on the list (who have written their own books), but if they are the catalyst to encouraging a non-reader to pick up a book and start a nationwide conversation about reading, then everyone will be better off,” said Grant.

She added that World Book Day would be announcing news about its young adult list in the coming weeks.

The £1 World Book Day books for 2018 in full:

Oi Goat! by Kes Gray and Jim Field (Hodder Children’s Books)

Mr Men: My Book About Me By Mr Silly written and illustrated by Adam Hargreaves, original concept by Roger Hargreaves (Egmont)

The Baby Brother from Outer Space! by Pamela Butchart, illustrated by Thomas Flintham (Nosy Crow)

Paddington Turns Detective and Other Funny Stories by Michael Bond, illustrated by Peggy Fortnum (HarperCollins)

Nadiya’s Bake Me a Story by Nadiya Hussain, illustrated by Clair Rossiter (Hodder Children’s Books)

Terry’s Dumb Dot Story: A Treehouse Tale by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton (Macmillan)

The Girl Who Thought She Was a Dog by Clare Balding, illustrated by Tony Ross (Puffin)

Brain Freeze by Tom Fletcher, illustrated by Shane Devries (Puffin)

The Bolds’ Great Adventure by Julian Clary, illustrated by David Roberts (Andersen Press)

Marvel’s The Avengers: The Greatest Heroes by Alastair Dougall (Dorling Kindersley)


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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