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Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Why Frank Lampard's Children's Book Deal Is A Good Thing

So Frank Lampard has been offered what is in all likelihood a whacking great sum of money to write a series of children’s books. Few commentators seem overwhelmed by the prospect of Lampard as a children’s author. There are plenty of good reasons not to be. For one thing, the characters in the book are apparently “loosely based” on Lampard’s Chelsea teammates. From what we know of them, it doesn’t seem as though they would be fit to grace the pages of a children’s novel.

The whole thing is also a classic case of an already famous person garnering even more attention on the basis simply of being famous in the first place. There is a lot not to like about that. Likewise the fact that the phenomenon of the celebrity children’s author seems to imply that writing for children is something just anyone can do with ease – you wouldn’t hire Katie Price to do your dental work; why then hire her to write a kids’ book? – and that children can be fobbed off with any old nonsense, provided there is a famous name on the cover.

As a children’s author who has not yet had his own book published I have an extra reason to feel frustrated with Lampard’s book deal. It may well be that the handful of agents and publishers I’ve approached turned me down on the basis that my output is not yet of sufficient quality to merit publication in a full collection. That may be entirely fair. But what I do know is that, especially in the world of children’s poetry, quality is far from a guarantee of publication anyway. Publishers want material they know will sell, and poetry doesn’t sell especially well at the best of times. Given this, publishers tend to publish authors who have already established themselves, thus fomenting a kind of self-perpetuating hegemony into which it is extremely hard for new authors to break. So Lampard's book deal is sure to jar with us plebs.

But what many commentators seem to have missed is that Lampard may, for all we know, be a gifted writer. David Walliams, not originally famous for children’s books, turned out by all accounts to be excellent. The first of Lampard’s books is not due out until June and may likewise turn out to be very good. We just don’t know yet. My guess is that the book will turn out to be no better than the multitude that did not make it beyond many a publisher’s slushpile, but we should surely wait to read it before passing judgment.

A less obvious but perhaps more important point, though, is this: even assuming that Frank Lampard’s book is no better than countless other unpublished efforts, his being published on the basis purely of who he is may turn out to be no bad thing. Boys are often not as enthusiastic about literacy as girls, and teachers have on occasion sought to address this by having me in their school. Such teachers do not invite me in purely on the basis of my material (a lot of which, admittedly, is likely to appeal to boys anyway); they invite me because I am a male writer, and as such am a positive role-model.

The fact that teachers invite me in on this basis, and the fact that they often comment afterwards about the positive impact on their reluctant boys of having a young male writer in their school, shows that, in the eyes of the audience, the person delivering the words can be at least as important as the words themselves. The fact that Lampard, a world famous footballer and a role model, has written a book is sure to make lots of previously unenthusiastic male readers sit up and take notice. I hope that Lampard’s books will be marketed at and read by girls no less than boys, but what is true is that a lot of the male readers would probably not have felt compelled to read a book otherwise. I’ve no doubt that many boys will find a way into reading through Lampard’s books, in large part on the basis that it was Lampard who wrote them. It may be that they turn out, from a strictly literary point of view, to be not very good (as I have said, we just don’t know yet), but if they can successfully target a difficult young male demographic then I am willing to put my own cynicism and bitterness aside, and so should everyone else.

And lastly, coming back to my earlier point about the notion that anyone can be a writer: this is precisely what I tell my pupils all the time. Writing is, after all, not like dentistry – it needn’t take arduous training and it needn’t be difficult. And now I can say this to back me up: if the likes of Frank Lampard and Katie Price can do it, then so, surely, can you!