Visiting for the annual Bath Children’s Literature Festival, we sat down with Greg James and Chris Smith discussing their exciting Kid Normal series
Greg James and Chris Smith are calling all members of the Heroes’ Alliance because the planet’s most dangerous super villains have broken out of prison! But actually it’s all OK because Kid Normal is on hand to chase them down. We chatted to Radio 1 DJ Greg James about their forthcoming event at the children’s literature festival on 5 October.
How were the Kid Normal books born?
A few summers ago, Chris’s son Lucas was at a holiday camp where they had to play football. Lucas isn’t the best footballer in the world and felt quite intimidated by group of slightly older, slightly more skilful children there. He reported back to his dad and instead of consoling him, decided to jot it down as a potential theme for our, as yet unplanned, children’s book. The idea of being in a new environment with older, more talented people was the jumping off point for the books. The football pitch was substituted (pun intended) for the school. And Lucas was replaced by Kid Normal – Murph. We raised the stakes by making all the children except Murph have special powers, or ‘capabilities’ as we call them. We got together and thrashed out a few ideas of what the school would be like and we quickly realised that this was a great idea.
How do you get ideas for your stories?
A lot of the ideas come from our own experiences of school. For example, in the first book, Murph being dumped at the school’s ‘early drop desk’, was exactly what happened to me. Many of our own teachers’ names have been used, too. We also read as much as possible, watched as many things as possible and observed the world. There’s always a bit of inspiration out there.
Your books are inclusive and full of energy – why do you think kids love them?
We wanted to make the characters feel real and somewhat rooted in reality. We love it when kids come up to us and say things like, “Oh I’m SO Hilda. She is my favourite I want to BE like her”. It was important for us that they felt relatable in what can be quite a mad environment. When we write, we love making each other laugh, so comedy is hugely important to us. We always try and outdo each other and it’s a great way of working. The other thing is that we wanted the stories to have a lot of heart. We can both be incredibly sentimental and soppy, so we like to show that our characters have ups and downs along the way too.
Do you try and make the stories work for boys and girls?
One of the overarching themes of the series is inclusivity, so we like to celebrate every single one of our characters as equally as possible. Despite the main character being a boy, there are actually more strong and interesting female characters than there are male, so hopefully our readers realise these books are for all.
How has your work on the radio inspired your book ideas?
We love being silly and coming up with ideas together, so it was a complete joy to get to write them into a story that will outlive us. The idea that a radio listener needs to do some work while listening also plays to our strengths when writing because that is also how you get the most out of a book, so we’ve actually found some great similarities between the disciplines.
Who are your favourite characters?
Chris loves Flora as she is based on his granny, who is a brilliantly strong, funny and fascinating part of our adventures. I adore writing the lines for Mr Flash and Mr Souperman as that’s when Chris and I are at our funniest.
How do you collaborate when writing?
We tend to write most of it together. Particularly the big set pieces and main chunks of dialogue as we act it out as we’re doing it. Much like you would do if you were writing a play or screenplay with someone. Chris has a brilliant brain for long-term story arcs and will often come in to the writing room (the local pub) after a long bike ride and go, “I’VE HAD SOME BIKE INSPIRATION!”, and more often than not, the ideas are genius.
Does thinking up new zany superpowers ever become difficult?
Absolutely not. We love doing it and the sense of achievement when you unearth a new gem is like nothing else. The librarian whose head turns into a foghorn when she’s angry is one of my favourites.
What superpower are you most proud of creating?
The Zeroes’ individual powers are most special to us and also most crucial to the stories. We thought very carefully about why they had the ones they do, and I guess Hilda’s ability to summon tiny horses is the one that our readers love the most. That was a Chris Smith bikespiration moment…
What were your own favourite books when you were children?
For me, anything by Roald Dahl – in particular Danny, Champion of the World, and Matilda. Being read The Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton is one of my earliest memories. Chris is an enormous fan of Tolkien, and adored The Hobbit, as well as being a lifelong Moomin fan [books by Tove Jansson]. We have many bases covered.
Catch Greg James and Chris Smith at The Bath Children’s Literature Festival being held from 27 September to 6 October at various venues of Bath; bathfestivals.org.uk