Finding a balance on celebrity authors

Celebrity books are nothing new for World Book Day - David Walliams, David Baddiel, Cerrie Burnell and Tom Fletcher are all £1 book alumnae - but never have so many featured in one year’s WBD list: four out of the 10 2018 books. For career authors this has understandably proved utterly galling.

Earlier this year I urged publishers to be creative and transparent about celebrity children's books. At best, celebrities can entice non-readers, at worst they undermine the craft of writing itself. Four out of 10 is too many.

However, I do think celebrity and branded books can play a positive role in World Book Day. WBD director Kirsten Grant offers the statistic that in 2016, for one in four kids the book they bought with their token was the first they have ever owned. This number increased to one in three for those receiving free school meals. At last week's Bookseller Children's Conference, Asda book buying manager Phil Henderson gave a stark reality check: “Many people don't think of kids books as a luxury. They don't think of kids books at all.”

We know that access to books and reading improves children's life chances. And yet so many don't have that access, have never owned a book, have no books in their homes, never see an adult reading, have cultural references that are entirely from TV or YouTube. Maybe their school can't afford an author visit, maybe their local library is shut and there's nobody who would take them there anyway. Too many children who simply think the world of books is not for them. We are privileged to work in books and know what richness exists. But at times that can feel like a 'book bubble'. For so many people, it is an intimidating and elitist world.

Attracting new readers has always been key to WBD and this, I believe, is where celebrity, or a media property, can be powerful. Celebrities and popular brands can offer familiarity, an entry point, a sense that maybe books could be for them after all. In the 2018 line-up, I think Nadiya Hussain, Tom Fletcher and the Avengers title are particularly strong choices. Nadiya is beloved of many children and families as a "Great British Bake Off" star and, as a high-profile Muslim, begins to offer diversity that the children's book world sorely needs. Tom Fletcher, former pop star now YouTube vlogger, has already written the best-selling Dinosaur Who Pooped… picture books and reader reviews praise the accessibility of his middle-grade debut. Books are, of course, not just about fiction and in Marvel Avengers Greatest Heroes we'll have a fact-packed guide to one of entertainment's most popular brands.

Some of the tweets I read this weekend dismissed all such books as rubbish and I think we have to be very careful not to descend into book snobbery here. Certainly some celebrity and licensed books are, but by no means all. Publishers have a responsibility to make sure these books are good quality. And by quality I don't necessarily mean literary but entertaining and page-turning, enough to lure children to a second book. Publishers also need to be clear where ghostwriters have been used; the message that you have to be a celebrity to write books helps no one.

As for the rest of the list, there's plenty to celebrate. I'm delighted at the inclusion of Oi Goat, Pamela Butchart & Thomas Flintham's Izzy story and the Treehouse series: all brilliantly funny, accessible books with broad appeal. For the first time ever, all 10 books will be illustrated. This is a real positive. The contribution artists make to the children's book world is not celebrated enough. Pictures are proven to attract reluctant readers, and we have the joy of talents like Jim Field and David Roberts.

As for the other 'brands', Mr Men is beloved of generations and in Paddington we have a national treasure with the added cache of a blockbuster film. For greater balance, I would have welcomed a traditionally authored novel suitable for more confident 9-12 year-old readers, and a further non-fiction or poetry title. It is a shame YA plans were not revealed at the same time, and this has added to authors' concerns. And for future years we need to work so much harder as an industry to nurture diverse authors' and illustrators and make World Book Day ever more representative.

The landslide of celebrity publishing this year alarms me and I repeat my call for publishers to take care and responsibility for the choices they make. Celebrity can have a place, but shouldn't be the staple. I hope the next World Book Day selection offers more balance. But I think the challenges authors face go much deeper than this. More children's books are being published than ever before, shelf space is at a premium, we have a culture that demands immediate success. Let's level that playing field by publishing fewer books better, investing in those career authors who are the backbone of our industry.

Fiona Noble is The Bookseller's children's previewer.