Author Interview: “Comedy affirms the fact that we are all children. And you’re allowed to be a child when you write children’s books”, says David Baddiel

A long-time stand-up comic, an accomplished children’s author and literary figure, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the man behind the unofficial anthem of English football, the “Three Lions” song (“Football is coming home”), David Baddiel is a greatly accomplished English creative who truly only commits himself to passion projects. Whether it’s being a regular presenter of the Penguin Podcast where he’d interview and jam with Johnny Marr à la The Smiths (they sang “This Charming Man”… yes he has it all and no life is not fair), or a screenwriter creating multiple tv shows that feature the likes of Stephen Fry, Baddiel’s love for what he does is necessarily present in all that he creates and is associated with.

A staunch Chelsea supporter who truly cannot stop thinking about Cole Palmer, Baddiel, stopped by Kunzum to sign his children’s books. On a strict timeline and yet genial in the face of it, Baddiel asked us to take our time and ask away…so we did! Read on:)

Sashrika: Why children’s literature? 

Baddiel: I was a comedian in London, a filmmaker, and I’d written four adult novels. So a few people had asked me, ‘Well, why don’t you write children’s novels? David Walliams has written children’s novels.’ And I said that I haven’t got an idea

Then one day my son, who was eight then, said to me, ‘Why doesn’t Harry Potter run away from the Dursleys?’– the Muggle family he had to live with when he wasn’t at Hogwarts. ‘Why doesn’t he run away from them and try to find some better parents?’ This was just a question that he was asking but it also gave me an idea. And the idea was of a world in which children could choose their own parents.

When I have ideas for stories, I also have a good ‘story sense’. By which I mean that I know immediately when there is a longer story there. More than just that idea. I could feel that a book was there. So I contacted those who had, at that point, contacted me to write children’s books, like Harper Collins. And I said that this was a good idea for a children’s book. That was the Parent Agency,which is about a world in which children can choose their own parents, and a boy who goes into that world. It sold a lot of copies. And then I started writing some more. 

But each book, or at least I hope, comes from another idea. I never write anything if I think that I have to write, or that I should because it’s good for my career. I never do that. I just write when I have the idea. And children’s books are quite good for that because they’re plot-led. They are very story-led books. 

Sashrika: How would you encourage young minds to pick up more books and read? 

Baddiel: Well, I think my books have been successful with children because they’re very humour-based. I noticed that when I started writing for children, and also when I was looking at my children and what they were watching, there is a lot of funny stuff now for kids. Like Pixar movies. They are really funny! Ratatouille is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, or rather one of the best movies I’ve ever seen! Toy Story is also one of the best things I’ve ever seen. And then there’s stuff on TV like The Simpsons or The Amazing World of Gumball and all these incredible things for children that are not like, ‘Oh, they’re funny for kids.’  No. They’re funny in general. So that allowed me to start writing in a way where I didn’t talk down to children comically. I just thought that I’d make it as funny as anything else that I’ll write, I just won’t put any swearing in it. And children got into them because they’d pick them up and start to laugh. 

Yes, there is a ‘story’ and ‘heart’ and some kind of a ‘moral’ lesson that is often in there. But the laughter is what brings them to it.

Sashrika: What’s the role of humour in political discourse? 

Baddiel: I started out as a stand-up comic and I still am a stand-up comic. And when I write even serious books, like the most serious book I’ve written is Jews Don’t Count,which is a book about anti-Semitism, but even that has jokes in it. Because I don’t recognise the boundaries between ‘serious’ and ‘comic’. I think that if you’ve got a point to make and you can make it with a joke, then put the joke in. It doesn’t diminish the seriousness. And then carry on with your serious point. 

It also helps you digest a difficult idea. So another thing about Jews Don’t Count, which is sort of similar to some of my children’s books, is that it is on a really complex and contentious subject. But when people read that book, they find it to be very easy to read. And that’s because it’s written as if I’m just speaking to someone. 

Sashrika: How do you think your experience as a stand-up comic and screenwriter affects how you write children’s books? Like there’s the humour component, but also in terms of how you’d imagine the story and how you’d go about it? 

Baddiel: One of the things that I always bang on about is that being a comedian allows you to access the child within yourself. A lot of comedy is about stripping away the facade of adulthood. So when someone falls over and it’s funny it’s because their dignity as an adult has gone away. And that is one of the things that comedy is about. Comedy is about affirming the truth that we are all children, even though we might look much older. I look much older but at heart, I feel about 13. And that is true of all adults. You’re allowed to be like that if you’re a comedian, but you’re also allowed to be like that if you write children’s books. 

So I think that was always easy for me. To access the childish part of me when I started writing children’s books because I’ve done it in stand-up. Screenwriting is a little different because screenwriting is a formal discipline. But still, the type of story or storytelling always comes down to the same thing, which is: Is this a good idea? Does it have legs? Does it have a plot? Does it have energy? I’m quite good at knowing if that is there. 

Sashrika: Some children’s books have complex themes. Do you ever weave deeper messages? Or do you think that they should be light-hearted and thus removed from all ‘serious’ subjects?

Baddiel: All my children’s books have serious subjects in them, but they are all very embedded. You can read my children’s books and not see them at all, especially if you’re a child and you’re 8. But there is actually an awful amount of stuff going on. There is a lot of stuff about ‘truth’ in the books, about what ‘truth’ is and how to get away from lies and distractions etc. 

And also complicated stuff. Like in The Person Controller, there’s a girl who gets quite confused by the internet and by ideas on the internet on what she should look like. Very subtlely there is a message about trying to connect all the many ways in which girls are told to look a certain way. But you wouldn’t notice all of it unless you were really looking for it, because I’m mainly interested in telling the story and entertaining. And these things come through the story, they don’t sit on the story.

Sashrika: And lastly, what’s your matchday ritual for England matchdays, if you aren’t at the stadium and watching live?

Baddiel: I don’t have a ritual because I’m very un-superstitious. Although with Chelsea, which is the football club that I support, I do always sit with my brother. He always sits on what I consider to be my seat. And I say to him, ‘No you have to sit on the other seat.’ Now that’s partly because I don’t really like the guy who is sitting on the other side. If you’re listening (or reading), to that guy: I’m really sorry, but I’ve never really liked you and I prefer that my brother sits next to you. 

But it’s all because I just feel like ‘Well, that’s my seat.’ And even as we are recording this, Chelsea lost 5-0 yesterday so clearly it makes no difference where you sit!

With England games… No, I don’t really have a ritual. I do feel very nervous before big England games because I do want them to win and they hardly ever do. I also hope that they’ll play my song. Do you know my song?

Sashrika: Yeah– “Football’s Coming Home”

Baddiel: Yes! That song! I always hope that they’ll play it. And they do sometimes but that’s normally only when we win.

Sashrika: Does that excite you? That it became the unofficial anthem?

Baddiel: It was incredibly exciting when it first happened, which was 25 years ago. Because neither I nor Frank Skinner, who is my co-writer, nor Ian Brody, who wrote the music– none of us knew what was going to happen. We were just on the ground. And in Euro 1996– it was that game when they sang it, and we had no idea– the crowd knew the entire song! It had only come out three weeks ago! And the whole crowd, which is 80,000 people, knew all the words?!  And this is before there were screens so there were no lyrics. It was really amazing. It was one of the most amazing things in my life when they all started singing it. And it’s still wonderful but it’d probably never beat the first time it happened. It’s still wonderful though that it happened.

And can I just say something else? I’ll tell you why that happens. 

Because I don’t have a filter. So I always speak what’s exactly in my head. And so when we wrote that song, I wanted it to represent what it is really like to be a football fan. Particularly in England. And all the songs before that, which there had been a few, they all said ‘We’re going to win, we’re going to win.’ Which is not true. So we wrote a song about how we are probably going to lose, right? It begins with a ‘Oh they’re probably going to blow it away, they’re going to throw it away’ and then there is the thing about ‘Oh but we hope, magically, that this time we would win.’ And that spoke to football fans because it came from somewhere real. And similarly is how I try to write children’s books. I always try to be really authentic. Not something like ‘What should I be writing?’

So there you go!

Pick up David Baddiel’s signed children’s books or the Baddiel Box-Set from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

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