I have been intrigued by the (relatively) recent phenomenon or authors-who-aren’t-actually-authors. Are they any good? Can any patterns be observed with them? And so my quest began – to find the celebrity authors whose books are actually worth reading. Here is the run-down of my personal top ten:
Number 10 – Matt Millz by Harry Hill, illustrated by Steve May
A common theme of these books has been the ‘how to’ element, whereby the author’s own skills and tips about how to succeed are woven into the text. In this case, the advice is how to be a stand up comedian, with references to joke tellers old and new. As you would expect, the joke telling is pretty funny and the characterisations are enjoyable, but it was let down a bit by the predictable plot. Matt Millz Stands Up is already available and Matt Millz on Tour comes out at the end of the year.
Number 9 – Itch by Simon Mayo
This was an exciting and well-written adventure story with an intriguing theme – an attempt to collect as many elements as possible. The pace and suspense was well-maintained and, as a surprising bonus, the school aspects of the story had the ring of truth. Although the protagonist is 14, the content is fine for upper key stage 2. There are other sequels to look out for (Itch Rocks and Itch Craft) and, on this basis, I would be intrigued to read his adult novel as well.
Number 8 – Birthday Boy by David Baddiel
Possibly the most elegantly-written of this list, Birthday Boy is a manic caper around London with an entirely absurd but intriguing premise – suppose it was your birthday every day? Unsurprisingly, the reality of this turns out to be less fun than the hero imagined. The story plays out convincingly with care taken over the portrayal of both major and minor characters, and plenty of laughs too.
Number 7 – Tilly’s Horse, Magic: Team Training by Pippa Funnell
I picked this up with a heavy heart, intending just to start it off…and surprised myself by reading it right the way to the end. I don’t know whether it was the plot, the characters or the setting, but despite following well-worn story lines, it was surprisingly gripping. It’s a pony book, so if you don’t like pony books, avoid, but if you enjoy them (or are neutral about them), it might be well worth a read. Certainly she has written loads of these, (18 in the Tilly’s Pony Tails series and 4 in this series) and it might be that I just struck lucky with this one – I shall have to read some others and see if the quality is maintained. As with Harry Hill, there are lots of tips on riding and competing but they are neatly interwoven with the story.
Number 6 – Bear Grylls Adventures: The Arctic Challenge by Bear Grylls, illustrated by Emma McCann
Of all the didactic books, this is the most obvious – but also one of the most enjoyable. The skills described are both interesting and plot-relevant, and the character development is heart-felt and believable. Again, I picked this up with some scepticism (possibly even eye-rolling), but I was won over by it. I am not sure its charms would sustain me through all 12 books in the series, but at least there is a reason for all 12 (each follows a different child from the same adventure camp, and each covers a different environment and the survival skills relevant to it). At the end, the magic device is handed over to the next child. This is potentially a really naff idea, but in reality I thought it was well executed. He has also written an updated version of The Jungle Book and another series called Mission: Survival.
Number 5 – The Bolds by Julian Clary, illustrated by David Roberts
An entertaining start to a 6-book series, this has an utterly preposterous premise, but if you accept that it is preposterous and go with it, it is actually very enjoyable. The humour is lively without being gross-out, the characters are nicely drawn, there is a bit of a twist and I even got quite emotional about the fate of poor old Tony. However, the secret weapon of this book is the illustrations (by David Roberts). They really do add to the ‘caper’ feel of the book, and would be an excellent to support to less-confident readers.
Number 4 – Flying Fergus by Chris Hoy
I was worried when I started this that my preconceptions about the authors (sportsman = not a proper author, therefore books will be terrible) would colour my judgement and I would not be able to give a fair assessment. This book put my mind at rest, as I had very low expectations, but was thoroughly charmed by it. It relies, as so many of these books do, on a magic object (Bear Grylls’ compass, Frank Lampard’s football, Darcy Bussell’s…actually I can’t be bothered to remember it) but in this book the magical device has a solid, character-led reason for existing, and the magical world to which Fergus is transported has its own internal logic. The real and the magical intertwine in a convincing way and, although the plot is almost entirely predictable, it really doesn’t matter because it has heart and charm. Right at the end, I discovered in the small print that the book was a collaboration between Chris Hoy and the established children’s author Joanna Nadin. Maybe that explains the high standard of characterisation and world building? Whatever the extent of the collaboration is, this book is a real winner with positive messages (subtly done, not announced with a klaxon), interesting characters of both genders and a Scottish setting (now I come to think about it, not something you encounter that often). Again, this is the start to a series, with currently at least 8 available.
Number 3 – A Slice of the Moon by Sandi Toksvig
This one comes with a bit of a warning – DO NOT get this book for the laughs. Just because she presents funny programmes, it does not mean she writes funny books. I would only recommend this for fairly robust upper key stage 2 readers as the portrayal of circumstances during the Irish potato famine is (rightly) traumatic, especially the conditions aboard the ship they take to sail towards a better life. This is a wise and compassionate book, despite the rather dull title. It ends a bit abruptly, so I wasn’t surprised to find that there is a sequel (The End of the Sky, if anything, an even duller title). The characters are vividly drawn (both major and minor) and there is lots of fascinating historical detail. Highly recommended for drama, emotion and being transported to another world (the reader, not the characters).
Number 2 – Ghost Buddy: Zero to Hero by Henry Winkler with Lin Oliver
Another very entertaining book where the descriptions of the characters are immensely evocative without the authors seemingly making any effort. The ghost of the title, Hoover Porterhouse, is clearly a early 20th century incarnation of The Fonz, and as long as that doesn’t annoy you, you should enjoy it. It covers issues like blended families and the moral complexities of dealing with school bullies in a nuanced way, but also had plenty of laughs. The internal ‘rules’ of the book regarding how ghosts interact with humans are a little convoluted, but they are consistently applied. I enjoyed it way more than I was expecting to, and I am looking forward to reading the Hank Zipser stories as well (good to see the non-famous part of the writing team get a credit on the cover too). There are currently 3 further books in the series.
Number 1 – Kid Normal by Greg James and Chris Smith, illustrated by Erica Salcedo
I began this series out of curiosity with David Walliams (who, you will notice, has not made the cut into my top 10) and other celebrity authors, expecting that those who had begun their career as writers would probably produce the better books. As you can see, that has not turned out to be the case. If you had told me before I began that my favourite children’s celebrity author would be a pair of Radio 1 DJs, frankly I would have not believed you. I had a tip-off from a Teach Primary review that this was good, but I was still dubious. Then I read it. It was hilarious. Not only that, it was quite thought-provoking and has a very fresh twist on the superhero school theme. There are morals about teamwork and the power of friendship in there, but they are tucked away, not banging you over the head with them at the end of every chapter. The story hangs together well, but they skilfully manage to insert short standalone sections which are very funny indeed. As an added bonus, if you are reading it out loud there is exceptional scope for a range of funny voices. There are 3 books in this series available now, with a 4th due out next year. I will definitely be looking out for them, and keeping my fingers crossed that the quality is maintained.
So that’s my top 10. I’m not totally committed to this order, apart from the last 3 which I do feel are a notch above all the others, but all lists are subjective anyway. I felt that the quality of these books has been higher than I expected, and there has only been one which I was seriously tempted to throw across the room. And what was that, I hear you ask? Well you will have to keep following my future posts on sports stars/ comedians/ random famous people to find out…
Have I neglected a celebrity author you love? Let me know in the Leave a Reply box below.
All pictures taken by Barbara Thomas