Comedians-turned-authors crack jokes with the kids

Shaun Micallef's retelling of Grimm's fairytales resembles a Stephen Sondheim musical crossed with Lemony Snicket???.

???In the woods of an anonymous principality presided over by a pompous king, Little Red Riding Hood is a shortsighted "Tiny Poncho Girl" who eventually couples with Tom Thumb; the six dwarfs are ex-circus freaks - one having gone solo - and Hansel and Gretel survive Cannibal's Candy Slaughterhouse to receive lifelong peerages.

It is wicked and wry and anarchic in equal measures, and the ABC satirist is as surprised as anyone Tales from a Tall Forest turned outto be prime reading material for older children and teens.

"I thought if you'd been a child then you'll understand the story. I thought it might work as a story being read to a child because - like I used to do - I would leave out the boring bits that I didn't think the kids would understand or add something of my own."

Micallef is an accidental member of a loose collective of well-known comedians who have joined a Christmas rush to children's book publication.

Dave Hughes, Tim Minchin and Andy Lee have new children's picture books joining Alan Brough, Peter Helliar???, Frank Woodley, Anh Do, Tania Lacy, Gretel Killeen and Wendy Harmer.

Lee found unexpected commercial success with Do Not Open This Book, created as a birthday present for his toddler nephew, and at last count 74,062 copies had been sold in Australia. For its sequel, a broad repeat of the first storyline, Lake Press says it has printed 120,000 copies for domestic and overseas release.

Scatological humour underlies Excuse Me!, Dave Hughes' collaboration with journalist-wife Holly Ife about a lamb that gets into trouble when it fails to "let go".

Hughes gets star billing and helped with the writing but the book was driven by Ife, who has a teaching degree, and was inspired by the revelation of Hughes' radio co-host, Kate Langbroek, that she and her husband "keep themselves together".

"We've got three little ones ourselves and it was a way to connect with children and talk about manners in a fun way," Hughes said.

A comedian's history of adult humour and sexual innuendo seems no obstacle to sales credibility.

One of the most successful comedy-club-to-bookstand switches is David Walliams, whose global book sales exceed 20 million copies. All this from a comedian whose breakout series, Little Britain, carried moderate language and comic sex references.

More anodyne, Anh Do's first eight books in the WeirDo series has sold more than 700,000 copies in Australia since December 2002, according to figures compiled by Nielsen BookScan, but it is Harmer who dominates the category with more children's book titles to her name than any rival comedian-writer.

Quality does vary across the sector, however. "It doesn't always follow that someone who is talented at stand-up or other forms of comedy is also able to write well for kids," judge of the children's category for this year's Prime Minister's Literary Award Sue Whiting said." And this can be problematic.

"High-profile comedians may be able to attract mainstream publicity and good sales, but when publishing decisions are made because of who has written the book, rather than what has been written, then there is a danger that quality can be compromised. The result is that some books written by comedians are fantastic, and others not so."

Next May Walker Books is publishing a junior fiction series by The Chaser's Andrew Hansen and wife Jessica Roberts.

"What is fabulous about comedians is they know how to tell a story, they know how to pace it out, they know how to wring out a moment," said publisher Linsay Knight.

Like with Harmer's books,which Knight published,the ideas in the Hansens' Bab Sharkey and the Animal Mummies: The Weird Beard, arrived with parenthood. Knight thinks there is something to the idea that the comedians are writing books as they read to their own children.

It was true for The Project's Peter Helliar who has sold 34,685 copies of Frankie Fish and the Sonic Suitcase.

Helliar's publisher at Hardie Grant Egmont is Marisa Pintado who also attributes the Australian children's book market's appetite for humour to the success of the Wimpy Kid and Tom Gates series. She predicts big things for Helliar who has another book out next year and seems to be reaching kids other can't.

"Comedians are an obvious go-to," Pintado says. "But there is no point approaching comedians who can't write. We are not interested in fabricating success."

Micallef's children are older teens, aged 15 and 19, and his tall tales carry a parent's yearning. "You know this as a parent that moment when your child is no longer a child or no longer be a child completely and there is that beautiful naivete that seems to give way to self-awareness.

"That moment when Snow White realises she is beautiful - I wanted to try and capture that sweet sadness that exists as a parent and I would never try that on a television show because it just doesn't sit.

"In this case writing about fairytales gave me cover to explore something that was more deeply felt."

Australian comedian-author bestsellers:

Figures compiled by Nielsen BookScan by title since December 2002:

Weirdo, Anh Do, 151,097

Even Weirder!, Anh Do, 98,981

Extra Weird!, Anh Do, 85,983

Do Not Open This Book, Andy Lee, 74,062 (picture book version)

Pearlie in the Park, Wendy Harmer, 54,173

Frankie Fish and the Sonic Suitcase, Peter Helliar 34,685

Charlie and the War against the Grannies, Alan Brough, 15,312

The Night My Bum Dropped, Gretel Killeen, 10,214

When I Grow Up, Tim Minchin, 5754*

Tracey Lacy is Completely Coo-Coo Bananas, Tania Lacy, 4189

Kizmet and the Case of the Tassie Tiger, Frank Woodley, 3052

Excuse Me!, Dave Hughes, 1105*

* Just released

This story Comedians-turned-authors crack jokes with the kids first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.