I’m intrigued by how many books there are where the main character pursues or achieves fame. What does it mean to pursue fame? And why? Well, most people, and kids included, seek affirmation. And being famous is perhaps the ultimate recognition, or so we may believe. Celebrities are usually people who’ve achieved some level of expertise and are publicly recognized for this. And there are reality stars who are famous for, well, being famous. With so many outlets and opportunities to receive recognition in all kinds of media, it makes sense that younger and younger children want to climb aboard the fame train in order to feel good about themselves.
In Judy Moody Gets Famous by Megan McDonald, Judy feels about as “famous as a pencil” and attempts several ill-planned efforts at salvaging her ego through acts she thinks will bring her fame, including trying to counterfeit George Washington’s cherry pit. But it’s ultimately an act of altruism that gives Judy the fame she’s seeking. In fact, Judy’s most satisfying moment is when she receives recognition, while still being anonymous.
Eleven year-old Jermaine Davidson, in The Upside of Ordinary by Susan Lubner feels as if fame will save her from a conventional and boring life. At first, she considers becoming a movie star but she knows her father will never move to California, and the life of a super model is out of the question for a girl who wears a palate expander, so she settles on becoming a reality TV show producer. Jermaine films vulnerable family moments and, in essence, exploits her family’s traumas and dramas. As the title implies, Jermaine discovers the benefits of ordinary and uses her camera to help heal versus further injure already injured family members. Here again, stardom is ultimately is revealed as a false prize or hope.
P.G. Kain explores the ups and downs of tween girls auditioning for commercials in his Commercial Breaks series. In Book 2, Picture Perfect, Cassie Herold seeks out her jobs in the hopes of catching the attention of her emotionally and physically distant father. He only seems to call when he sees her on TV. And Cassie wants the security of her perfect-looking TV mom when her own mom is a distracted professor whose hippie style feels unhip and un-perfect. Once again, the pursuit of fame is cast about as a false panacea for deeper problems, such as Cassie’s failing grades and her fractured family.
In Linda Urban’s A Crooked Kind of Perfect, 10-year-old Zoe Elias seeks fame as a concert pianist. But this dream comes crashing down when, instead of a piano, she receives an organ. Zoe learns to accept her situation, and doing so helps her to heal those closest to her, including her agoraphobic dad. While she might never play at Carnegie Hall, Zoe plays an important role in her own family.
Is fame ever a healing force? It seems when children pursue fame for fame’s sake, the answer is no. When a character achieves something extraordinary and then receives wide recognition, then fame is not destructive. I’m thinking of a book like Andrew Clements’ now classic, Frindle, where Nick Allen invents a new word in order to prove a point to his narrow-minded teacher, Mrs. Granger.
In Julia DeVillers’ How My Personal Journal Became an International Best Seller, a very young YA, 14-year-old Jamie Bartlett becomes a famous author. Although her celebrity is not without issue, it’s also curative because her journal exposes authentic feelings that need to be addressed. Also, Jamie did not seek fame. She sought out an artistic avenue to express her feelings. In this case, fame is not malevolent, but a healing form of wish fulfillment.
In Jerry Spinelli’s Newbery Award winning novel Maniac Magee features a homeless boy who becomes a legend for his ability to run and to heal a town fractured by racism. He also does not seek fame but is rewarded for his heroism.
What does this mean to me? Well, the obvious, I guess. Seeking to become a celebrity to get back at people, or to get rid of your problems is a dead-end pursuit. Attempting to heal the world or to express yourself can organically lead to public recognition.
I suspect we will see many more novels showcasing wannabe stars as well as children who find lasting celebrity in a world looking for heroes. At least I hope so, as it’s a wellspring of material to both share and discuss.
Hillary Homzie used to dream of having paparazzi follow her around. Now this would be her worst nightmare as she’s a children’s author and often doesn’t change out of her pajama bottoms. Besides writing middle-grade fiction, Hillary teaches in the graduate Program in Children’s Literature and Writing at Hollins University.