Comedian-turned-author David Baddiel talks to Luke Rix-Standing about impressing young readers, and the similarities between kids’ books and stand-up.
Some authors are inspired by their relationships, others by travelling the world, but for David Baddiel it was a family outing to the Harry Potter Warner Bros Studio Tour.
“My son Ezra, who was around eight years old, asked why Harry didn’t run away from the Dursleys and find some better parents,” he recalls. “It gave me an idea for a world in which children could choose their own parents, and it immediately sounded like a classic children’s story.”
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The result was The Parent Agency, and more than half a million book sales later, Baddiel has become a regular on the bookshelves of the nation’s children. “It turns out I have a facility for it,” he says. “Being a comedian allows you to remain a child inside, so when I sit down to write a new book I think about what my inner child wants.”
Baddiel, who is bringing his UK 2020 tour Trolls: Not The Dolls to Yorkshire in February, was already a published novelist, writing increasingly literary adult fiction, but his imaginative, finely-plotted stories struck a chord with his new audience.
“Children buy books because they think they’ll be fun or funny, so you have a very direct relationship with your readers, and kids will tell you exactly what they think,” says Baddiel, 55.
“To write a successful literary novel, you have to convince the cultural gatekeepers – you need a good review in the Guardian, or to be nominated for a big award. No child buys your book because they want it to be seen on their coffee table.”
Baddiel is a man of many talents. First and foremost a comedian, he’s dabbled in theatre, podcasts and screenplays, and remains perhaps best known for co-creating the England football anthem, Three Lions. The shift into children’s writing was never really planned, but Baddiel argues that the same principles underpin most of what he does.
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“I do see myself as a writer, but if I was going to put anything on my passport – and I know it sounds a bit pretentious – it would be storyteller. That takes me all the way from comedy to a documentary I’m currently making about holocaust denial – it’s all storytelling.”
His new book, The Taylor TurboChaser, is about a disabled 11-year-old girl whose wheelchair is transformed into a super-car, and it slots very comfortably into his canon. “A lot of my books dig into wish fulfilment,” he says. “The new one is about driving, and one of the things I wanted to do when I was nine was drive.”
That the book centres around a wheelchair was not meant as social engineering – “I didn’t think ‘this is really important’, it just felt more poignant and interesting” – but Baddiel is conscious of the increasing calls for diversity in children’s literature.
“I have included BME characters in all my books,” he says, “just because it’s real. My children are at state schools and have diverse friends. It would seem ridiculous for my schools to be anything but diverse – it just wouldn’t reflect modern reality.”
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The book also has a female protagonist. “Most of my books have centred on boys, and I wanted to get away from that,” says Baddiel. Father to an 18-year-old daughter, he wanted to try writing from a female point of view, but there was another reason too.
Even just a few years ago, Baddiel says, there was a sense that male protagonists were safer – that girls would read about boys, but that boys might not read about girls. “I hope that’s not true anymore,” he says, “and that having a female protagonist will make no difference to boys. I do get a sense that things have moved on.”
The Taylor TurboChaser by David Baddiel is published by Harper Collins, priced £12.99. To book tickets for his tour, visit www.davidbaddiel.com