In lieu of my regular non-existent contribution to Techland, classic Simpsons writer and lovable polymath Mike Reiss has something he’d like to get off his chest:
One of the frustrations of writing children’s books – besides the fact that no one buys them any more – is that you’re competing with celebrity authors. There’s Julie Andrews and Judy Collins, Kathie Lee Gifford and Jamie Lee Curtis, Johns Travolta and Lithgow, Queen Noor of Jordan and Sarah Ferguson. God help me, I’m fighting for shelf space with a queen and a duchess. And Madonna. Since stores arrange books by the author’s last name, I find my work – by Reiss – sandwiched between books by Carl Reiner and Lee Ann Rimes.
What bothers me is that so many of these books aren’t exactly books. Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno’s stories are actually excerpts from their stand-up routines. David Byrne’s children’s book is just the lyrics from one of his songs. So is Neil Sedaka’s.
And so is Steve Martin’s first children’s book. It’s called “Late for School” (Amazon ranking #1,601) and it’s the most charming book I’ve read since my 2003 book “Late for School” (Amazon ranking #1,189,590).
Both tell the story of a boy facing adventure on a mad dash for school. Both are written in verse. Both have the boy jumping over a pool (it rhymes with school). The biggest difference is that my book’s final twist has the boy arriving at school right on time, and then – spoiler alert! – realizing it’s Sunday. In Steve Martin’s book, it’s Saturday.
I’m not saying Steve ripped off my book, or even knew it existed. Steve Martin is a brilliant comedian, playwright and novelist. I’m thrilled that we had the exact same idea. And that I had it seven years earlier.
There is an upside to this trend. Recently a publishing house called me in a panic. They had a children’s book contract with an African-American superstar, and his manuscript was unusable – even by celebrity standards. They asked me – a Jewish kid from suburban Connecticut – to write a book about growing up as a poor black kid in the slums of New York. And they needed it the next day.
I informed them huffily, “A children’s book is not a fast-food hamburger and I am not McDonald’s.”
They said they’d pay me ten thousand dollars.
I said, “You want fries with that?”