In conversation with Greg James and Chris Smith

The new host of BBC Radio 1 Breakfast, Greg James, and Newsbeat presenter Chris Smith chat to our director Jonathan Douglas about becoming children’s authors, storytelling and the world of Kid Normal.

On becoming co-authors

Jonathan Douglas: Tell us how it works, two people writing together…

Greg James: Historically, people don’t write books together — but why not? We thought let’s use what we know about writing a comedy script or a radio piece and apply that to a book, and it seems to have worked so far.

Chris Smith: It’s actually fun writing a book, which has been a really nice message to bring to our readers… obviously it’s difficult at times, but we’ll remember the fun times, such as the first scenes between Nectar and Nicholas Knox — you can tell they’ve been acted out.

JD: It’s obviously sparked an enormous creative stream, which is genius to watch. A traditional image of an author is usually locked in a shed for some reason… but what you’re describing is brilliantly good fun…

CS: We haven’t got an author shed yet. I think that’s when you know you’ve made it… or that you’ve lost it…

GJ: We live quite near to each other in North London so we’re thinking, depending how well the next book goes, we’re going to get a tunnel built [between each other’s houses].

On storytelling

JD: There is something extraordinary about the [Kid Normal] books because they have a sense of interactivity. It’s almost impossible to not read them aloud…

CS: They are absolutely designed so that they’re fun to read aloud and read together. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing with my son, who’s now 11 years old, and still do with him.

I always really liked that interactive, fun time and really laughing together when we were reading something funny, such as All Join In by Quentin Blake… It’s an easy out as a parent that you can be the world’s best stand-up comedian just by reading Mr Gum.

GJ: [By adding stage directions to the book] our readers know we’re there with them, sort of conducting them… We like the idea of inclusivity and everyone mucking in together.

We did half of the work setting the scene, but they have to do the other half of the work. They have to imagine what the school looks like, or what is Mr Flash’s voice, or what does the Banshee sound like…that’s something magical that we really love doing.

JD: My hunch is that your top tip to kids about writing is to enjoy it…?

CS: Absolutely! Telling stories is one of the first skills that elevated humans above other animals. It’s something that we do not only for instruction, but we do it for fun…

JD: You’re a journalist — your background is the news, which helps us make sense of who we are…

CS: All telling stories is, is connecting people together. On a fundamental level, that’s all the news is and that’s all books and stories are.

On Kid Normal

JD: What you haven’t had the chance to do is explain some of the premises behind the books. Pitch the books…

GJ: Kid Normal is the story of a young boy called Murph Cooper who gets enrolled in a school for young superheroes by accident. By the times he’s worked out what’s happening to him, it’s too late — he knows too much, he can’t leave because he’ll reveal all the secrets and he’s made a couple of friends. The rest of story is how he fits in with these ‘super children’, until we realise that normality saves the day and you don’t need super powers to be a hero.

JD: I want to explore the ‘capes’ thing — I’ve heard kids discussing what capes they would have and their superhero capability, which sits at the heart of it all. Tell us where these capabilities came from…

CS: In the world of Kid Normal, a superhero’s ‘cape’ is not a cape they wear — it’s your superpower and short for ‘capability’. Traditional superheroes tend to have really useful superpowers — they can fly, or shoot laser beams out of their eyes. But we thought, why don’t people ever have really random super powers? Why don’t people just shoot soup out of their wrists or accidentally balloon different parts of their body? So we had this idea of capabilities manifesting themselves in kids when they’re about 10 years old, but you would have to go to school to learn how to hide it…

JD: If you had to choose a capability for each other, what would that capability be?

GJ: I know Chris is obsessed with clocks that [show the incorrect time] in public places. [His capability would enable him to] go past that clock and with a bit of pizazz, it suddenly spins wildly, sparks come off it and it’s corrected…I’d call you Old Father Time.

CS: I know you love to entertain and socialise. I think you’d be an excellent chef, so I’ll transform you into The Dinnerman. You can name any dish and it will appear on a dish in front of you.