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Topic: Sophie is writing children's books Return to archive
05-16-02 07:06 PM
Jaxx Will Sophie Dahl be big as an author too?
Model follows other celebrities (and grandfather) into crowded field of children's books

Lauren Mechling
National Post

Agence France -Presse

IMAGE OVERHAUL: Sophie Dahl, 24, is known as the token curvy girl of the fashion world but will soon be a published children's book author,...

Elise Amendola, The Associated Press

At the precious age of 24, Sophie Dahl has already managed to establish a number of personas for herself.

For starters, she's the party fixture whose bosom pours into a 38DD-sized brassiere with impressive facility. She's also virtually the only curvy woman among today's supermodels, thanks, in part, to those stunned-looking eyes, each as large as a hard-boiled egg.

Finally, Dahl has also been spotted swapping spit with Mick Jagger, 58. All that, and there's now another sunnier side of her: Following in the distinguished footsteps of her grandfather Roald Dahl, she has written a children's book. Its title, she revealed recently, is The Man with the Dancing Eyes, and it tells the story of a girl who runs off to New York after having her heart broken in London. Dahl's long-time friend Annie Morris, also 24, provides the illustrations.

Like many children's book authors (e.g.: J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and Granddaddy), Dahl has said she hopes her book will be read by adults. But given that it's a picture book, Dahl is avoiding being linked with pretentious celebrity novelists such as Ethan Hawke, Steve Martin and Anne Rice's son Christopher, to name a few. Instead, she's carving a niche for herself in a warmer, furrier world, where she'll be able to call such people as Beatrix Potter and Maurice Sendak her colleagues.

With the help of London's most formidable literary agent, Ed Victor, Dahl's book is currently at the centre of a hot-blooded bidding war. The victorious publisher is expected to be announced any day, and the book is expected to be published at Christmas or next Valentine's day.

While the literary merit of Sophie Dahl has yet to be ascertained, we can be sure that her black-smudged image is in for an overhaul. The modeling thing, apparently, is wearing thin. Recently, a weary-sounding Dahl told an English reporter that "Standing in a room full of 17-year-old naked Brazilian girls is not a good experience for anyone."

And if there is one profession that has nothing to do with the sleazy fashion world -- what could it be besides writing children's books? One can almost imagine Dahl curled up in a tree house, dreaming up tales of a little girl named Sophie flitting about the big city. Incidentally, the character Sophie in Roald Dahl's The BFG was based on his granddaughter.

In choosing to enter the cosy realm of picture book authors, Dahl can shed her after-hours persona. This is her chance to air herself out, to enter the ranks of people who spend their time making up stories about talking walruses and fat elephants who dance the tango. No longer content with being a good time girl, Dahl is reintroducing herself as a good girl.

As Toronto children's book writer and illustrator Maryann Kovalski puts it: "Saying I'm a children's book author, I get away with complete murder. I could be somewhere and say I have an eight-week-old baby being bottle-fed by a Scottish psycho nanny and people would sigh and say, 'Oh that's so great, you write children's books.' If I was a banker it wouldn't work like that."

The list of other personalities who have given picture book writing a whirl is immeasurable.

To name a few, Princess Sarah Ferguson, Katie Couric, Maria Shriver, Julie Andrews, John Lithgow, Jamie Lee Curtis and Whoopi Goldberg have all written books for children.

Last year, Will Smith released Just the Two of Us, and announced that he and his wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, have a number of children's books on the way.

Actor Harvey Fierstein (whose gravelly voice is often heard on The Simpsons) penned The Sissy Duckling, an allegory about homophobia. The book's hero is Elmer, a duck who wears pink sunglasses and spends his time baking and putting on half-time shows at duck football games.

Fred Gwynne, who played Herman Munster on The Munsters, has a book called The King Who Rained. Even Dr. Ruth has a children's book up her sleeve.

It should be noted that some authors who are known for their adult books have dabbled in children's book writing. Lorrie Moore, whose grumpy wit might not appeal to younger readers, wrote The Forgotten Helper: A Christmas Story, which tells the story of a wayward elf. Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison co-authored The Big Box. Margaret Atwood has written four children's books: Anna's Pet, Up in the Tree, For the Birds, and the alliteration-happy Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut (which was illustrated by Kovalski).

While a book's initial sales can be bolstered by a writer's celebrity, ultimately the children decide what gets reprinted and what gets tossed out. Paula Quint, President of the Children's Book Council, a U.S. trade association of children's book publishers, said, "No child says, 'Oh boy! Jamie Lee Curtis wrote that book!' They either like the book or they don't."

Some celebs are better than others at pulling off the cuddly writer schtick. It is generally agreed that Jamie Lee Curtis and John Lithgow know what they're doing. Dr. Ruth, on the other hand, ought to stay in radio, say some children's book authors who asked not to be identified.

Not that any of this is completely the celebrities' fault. Publishers are known to court celebrities, banking on all but guaranteed figures. Eleanor Lefaze, owner of Toronto children's bookstore Mabel's Fables, said books written by celebrities tend to enjoy massive initial successes since the authors already have audiences.

It is obvious why somebody who is already famous would want to be a children's book writer. Children's book writers are, at least in theory, writers without any of the hubris, ego or insecurity of adult writers. They can communicate with children, which is nearly as whimsical as Dr. Doolittle's skill of being able to talk to animals. Put simply, they possess big hearts.

Matthew Gollub, a children's book author said, "When people meet a children's author they assume -- and rightly so -- he has a humanitarian heart."

Trevor Hahra, another children's book author, said kids tend to develop hero worship when they meet him.

"You definitely get a second look from people when you say you write children's books," said Dave Ross, who wrote and illustrated The Book of Hugs. Aware of the selling potential of a celebrity, Ross recently tried to recruit Louis Rukeyser, the former anchor of Wall $treet Week, to write a book that he would illustrate. Rukeyser told Ross he would consider working on a project for an advance of $100,000. Most writers receive advances of $10,000, if that. Dejected, Ross gave up on his mission.

Many of the gentle members of the children's book world declined to comment as to whether they thought the celebrity writers had any merit. Writer Hans Wilhelm said many of the books are written by ghost writers. Shoo Rayner, who is on the verge of writing his first children's book in England, concurred saying, "it is disheartening when famous people knock something out and sell it on their name alone. But some do write good books. Or maybe their editors do."

Until her book comes out, Dahl is going to have to deal with appearing as Vogue's token curvy girl. Her latest appearance in the press was in the Mirror's "3am" gossip column after Dahl was spotted holding hands with male model James Gooding. The incident was rumoured to have caused Gooding's breakup with girlfriend Kylie Minogue, but the couple has since patched things up.

Alas, Dahl has a few months to go before she can expect to appear in the children's book section of the papers.

Is her oeuvre going to rejig people's image of her? "I think she'd have to write a lot of children's books for that to happen," said Kovalski.

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