Skip to main content

It's a Wednesday evening in Toronto and Margaret Atwood is standing at a podium in front of a packed theatre. Reading from her latest book, she holds the audience nearly spellbound as they listen to the words roll off her tongue. Occasionally, cries ring out from the audience, just like any raucous book launch.

But if you think she's reading from Oryx and Crake, or even from any one of her 17 novels, guess again. The Booker Prize-winning author is actually reading from Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes, a giddy alliterative masterpiece about a boy and his pet rat, Ralph. And Atwood's audience is mostly children ranging from 2 to 12, accompanied by their parents.

It's not just Atwood who is getting noticed for turning to kids' stuff. Each year it seems more and more celebrities are putting debut pop albums on the backburner to focus on penning children's books. Jamie Lee Curtis, Jerry Seinfeld, Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Spike Lee can all put author on their résumés thanks to their kids' books. Perhaps it was only inevitable that pop music's aging princess, Madonna, would follow her last publishing endeavour, 1992's picture book Sex, with a picture book for children, T he English Roses (not, as many feared, Bi-Curious George).

While Sex featured a nude or scantily clad Madonna in a variety of positions with men, women and dogs, not much is known about The English Roses other than that, "It deals with envy and jealousy, and how these emotions cause so much unnecessary suffering in our lives," according to a statement the author and mother or two released on as part of the prelaunch hype. The first in a series of five books, The English Roses has been a top-secret affair, with no advance copies before its simultaneous release in 100 countries today. (Madonna shrewdly hired the same PR company that promotes J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.)

"It seems every year now a celebrity or two takes a stab at writing a children's book," said Eleanor LeFave, owner of Toronto's Mabel's Fables, a bookstore specializing in children's books. She can't recall how many copies of The English Roses are coming to her store, but she vividly remembers the marketing material, which includes a ready-made display.

"I haven't seen a copy of the book -- they wouldn't send us anything but a poster -- but it looks pretty slick," she said. "I think Madonna is pretty shrewd."

Atwood, of course, can't be accused of shrewdly cashing in on the seemingly current vogue for Big Names writing children's books. For one thing, her celebrity is derived from writing books. For another, Atwood preceded these Hollywood Hans Christian Andersens back in 1978 when she published Up in the Tree, her first book for kids. And apart from the celebrities, Atwood keeps respected company in the "kidult" tradition. In the past year, Michael Chabon, Isabel Allende, Clive Barker, Carl Hiassen, Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison all released children's books. Children's literature is truly growing up. But why?

It's not as if Atwood, for instance, set out to write books for children. She may have a keen sense of what appeals to children developed from her time spent performing puppet shows as a youth, and from being a camp counsellor. And she's well aware of the importance of reading as a child -- she credits her own childhood, spent with Beatrix Potter, Mother Goose, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, and no television, as having had some influence on her future career path.

But each of her five forays into kiddie lit was a result of being asked by publishers hoping for a quick fix in revenues; today it's a strategy validated by the runaway commercial success of the Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket books, which gave children's literature more recognition, if not more legitimacy, as a genre.

"Do you remember the movie The Fly, where the fly with the man's head is caught in the web crying, 'Help me, help me?' " Atwood asks. "Well, that's Canadian publishing. Every once in a while I get the phone call."

Thus came 1978's Up in the Tree, which Atwood hand-lettered and illustrated herself, to keep the costs down. A request from James Lorimer produced Anna's Pet in 1980, which Atwood co-wrote with her aunt Joyce Barkhouse, herself an author, notably of Pit Pony. In 1990, Patsy Aldana asked her to take part in an environmental series that saw Atwood writing the non-fiction For the Birds. A call from Anna Porter produced Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut in 1995 for Key Porter books. And this year's call resulted in Rude Ramsay, which Atwood says has as much to do with improving the revenues of Key Porter -- still smarting from last year's Stoddard debacle and the war in Iraq -- as with Atwood's ambitions.

But Porter says children's literature is much too unpredictable a beast to be a mere cash cow.

"Like every book in the world, some children's books are good moneymakers and some aren't," Porter says. "It's a weird business. There are no guarantees, unless you are talking about a couple of trademark people like Margaret Atwood or Dennis Lee or Farley Mowat. If you put out a new book by Farley Mowat, there's not much of a chance it's going to bomb."

While Porter is certain that Rude Ramsay will raise revenues, she points out that Atwood can't be told to do a project she doesn't want to do. "I expect she wouldn't have done it if she thought it wouldn't be fun, and it is."

And there is pleasure to be derived from writing children's books. Atwood says writing her alliterative tales is a chance for "my inner silly person being allowed out to play."

Writing a children's book, particularly a picture book, is also a bit of a release for an author who spends months, even years, writing a full-length adult novel.

"You can have a happy ending, for one thing," says Atwood, who took only a few days to write Rude Ramsay, spending many more revising it. It's not too different from other forms of writing in that she has no idea where the inspiration comes from. She didn't start out with the letter P in mind when she decided to write Princess Prunella, likewise "R?" wasn't scribbled on the top of her notebook when she was thinking about Rude Ramsay. (She has announced that she has her eye on the letter "B" for her next book.) Does Atwood get annoyed when actors and musicians try to cross over into the literary world, doing a soft entry in the more forgivable children's-lit market than the adult world?

"Anybody can write anything they want," she says. "If the book is good, it's good. They shouldn't get points off because they are a celebrity, or points plus if you're a celebrity."

Still, Atwood feels the need to follow this avowal of meritocracy with the old joke about the brain surgeon and the writer who meet at a party. The brain surgeon says to the writer, "How interesting, I've always wanted to be a writer, and in fact, when I retire, I'm going to be a writer." The writer, of course, replies, "Well isn't that a coincidence. When I retire, I'm going to be a brain surgeon."

If it's any consolation to the authors, books by celebrities tend not to fly off the shelves as fast as might be expected, although they are the ones that attract the most hype.

"It's not as easy as one would think to write a children's book," LeFave warns. "Being a celebrity is no guarantee that the book will go on past its first season. But the books written by the authors, like Atwood, because they have a sense of fiction, have a better chance of long-term success."

Celebrity author or not, classic books take talent, and it's worth noting that four of Atwood's kids' books are still in print. And while Harry Potter books may have made it to Publishers Weekly's list of the top-selling children's books of all time ( Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is at No.5; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets at No. 10), the No. 1 book on the list is The Poky Little Puppy written in 1942 by Janette Sebring Lowrey, followed by Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit from 1902 at No. 2. Aside from the Potter books, the most recent book on the top 10 is Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham from 1960.

But even if it is impossible to predict how a celebrity's book will sell, LeFave says her bookstore will place an order.

"I'm not sure how Madonna's will do," she says. "But if someone comes in to buy Madonna's book, maybe they'll see another book they'll want to buy. What it's really doing is getting attention for children's books. It's creating a culture of reading."

This culture is creating some pretty tough young critics, though, making readings especially hard.

"Kids are there to enjoy themselves," Atwood says. "If you put on a puppet show for five- and six-year-olds, you've got to hold their attention. And if not, they're going to be sticking their fingers in each others' ears, falling out of their seats. Adults have a veneer of politeness, which means they'll stay till the end even though they're bored out of their trees. But kids, they're something else."

Still, even five-year-olds know quality when they hear it. LeFave remembers when Atwood was doing a reading from Princess Prunella at the store, with children and parents paying rapt attention to the author so often credited with defining Canadian literature.

"Then we had a question and answer session after the reading, and one little boy stuck up his hand and asked, 'Have you written any other books?' " LeFave says. "And the room just exploded with laughter."

Interact with The Globe