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Many Celebrities Finding Success in Children's Literary World - 2003-11-29

The popular American singer Madonna has produced another hit. It's not a new recording, but a best-selling children's book. Mr. Peabody's Apples is being published in more than 30 languages and 100 countries around the world. It's the second in a five-book series Madonna plans to publish over the next year. A host of other famous names from the worlds of show business, politics, even British royalty have also written recent stories for children, including everything from picture books to history guides.

Until recently, Madonna was known as a singer and actress, famous for recordings like Material Girl and roles in movies like Evita. But when she published her first children's book, The English Roses, in September, Madonna took on yet another identity. The performer who sang of liking boys for their money in Material Girl, the author of an earlier book called Sex, says she has new messages to convey.

"The books that I'm writing now are a reflection of who I am and what I value in the world," explains Madonna. "And for me to be able to reach people and share what I have, I need a platform to stand on, so I need to work in both worlds, so to speak."

Aimed at children in their early school years, Madonna's stories offer lessons about the importance of compassion and kindness, and the dangers of gossip and envy. Nicholas Callaway heads Callaway Arts and Entertainment, which is publishing Madonna's children's books. He believes the stories reveal a less well-known side of her character.

"There is a great deal more of the schoolteacher in Madonna than most people would have thought," he says. "I heard her read a children's book in 1995 on MTV in front of a live audience of hundreds of teenagers, and she turned that night club into a classroom. She was able to hold everyone's attention. And when I saw her abilities as a storyteller, I thought she would make a great children's book author and started talking to her about it then."

Children's stories reveal a different side of other celebrities as well. Film director Spike Lee, famous for hard hitting movies about racism and social injustice, joined his wife Tonya in writing a picture book about getting an energetic child to behave. They read Please, Baby, Please during an appearance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Others who've written books for young people include former President Jimmy Carter, Lynn Cheney, a past head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and wife of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, and Sarah Ferguson, who was married to Britain's Prince Andrew. The award winning writer, producer, director and comedian Carl Reiner published a recent best seller for kids called Tell Me A Scary Story… But Not Too Scary. It's a picture book about a boy who ventures next door into what looks like a terrifying house.

"My grandchild, Nicky Reiner, said to me one day, 'Grandpa, tell me a scary story, but not too scary.' And I told him a story - not the one that's in the book - and about a year later, after just finishing writing my memoir, somebody called me and said, 'Do you have a children's book in you?' And I was about to say no, when little Nicky's voice popped into my head, and I said, 'Wait a minute, I've got a title, maybe there's a book connected to that,' " he explains.

Becoming a grandparent or a parent is one reason famous people decide to write children's tales, says Nicholas Callaway. He notes that Madonna is now a mother of two.

"When we become parents I think there's a great desire to share and impart to our children lessons that will prepare them well for their lives. Also, I think we all remember the books we first read as children, and we all want to go back to those magical places we visited in books as children," he says.

While name recognition is bound to help a celebrity author find readers, Nicholas Calloway says it takes more than fame to write a successful book for kids.

"You have to be able to communicate well with children, to understand their concerns, to tell a story that is meaningful and to tell it concisely. That's a difficult challenge," he notes. "But in some cases actors who are of course storytellers and performers can take their talents and transform them to children's books. In Madonna's case, her experience in writing songs prepared her very well for becoming a children's book author."

Nicholas Callaway says Madonna has described writing for children as the most rewarding creative project she's ever done. Carl Reiner, who's considering a second children's book, also believes there's nothing like the pleasure of succeeding as a writer.

"If you're in a movie, somebody's written the movie, directed it. When you write something, it's your brain talking to another brain, and that's very thrilling," he says. "You work your whole life doing different things, and all of a sudden - I am 81, and here I am on the best seller list with a children's book. I just love it."

And celebrities like Carl Reiner and Madonna could be acquiring a whole new generation of fans. Nicholas Callaway notes that the audience for whom Madonna writes her stories is the one least familiar with her work as a performer.

"That means they are coming to these books afresh and reacting to them based on their parents reading to them or discovering them on their own around the world," he says.

And if the singer's books continue to be successful, Nicholas Callaway says a whole new generation could grow up thinking of Madonna - first of all - as a children's writer.