The Person Controller is a thrilling, funny and touching new adventure from David Baddiel, author of The Parent Agency. Here David chats about the inspiration behind his new book, and reveals what he loves about writing children’s fiction.
My first children’s book, The Parent Agency, was inspired when my son Ezra, then 8, asked me why Harry Potter didn’t run away from the Dursleys and go and find some better parents. My second book was also inspired by Ezra – I may just have to start paying him royalties – but not by anything he said this time. Between the age he was then and the age he is now (11), he’s become a gamer. And I’ve watched this happen, partly with a parent’s eye – trying to make sure he isn’t, when he says he’s playing Minecraft, secretly off playing Death Vampire Grand Theft Call of Duty Black Assassins or whatever – but also with a writer’s.
My interest with children’s stories is always as best I can to try and find an idea that feels like it taps into some kind of primal fantasy (we all have these fantasies, but they are live in children). With The Parent Agency, the desire to be able to try out other parents, other lives, was that fantasy. With my new book, The Person Controller, I wanted to work out what fantasy lies behind children’s obsession with video games. Because video games aren’t just a distraction: when Ezra plays FIFA, he isn’t just hypnotized like a toddler with a mobile – he is playing out a desire, and that desire is of course to be himself playing for Barcelona (his main virtual team, as far I can make out), or England. The players on the screen, although they may look like Lionel Messi or Wayne Rooney, are really him: he is his own avatar.
“I wanted to work out what fantasy lies behind children’s obsession with video games…”
So in The Person Controller, my heroes, twins Fred and Ellie, who love video games, find themselves given a magic controller, with which they can control each other. They become each other’s avatar. And when the twin on the Controller is thinking of – say – Super Mario, then the other twin can leap and jump like Super Mario. Without even having to wear blue dungarees and an absurd red hat.
Fred and Ellie use the Controller to sort out the problems in their lives (before, of course, it starts to go wrong…). These problems –being bullied at school; their mum and dad are a tad neglectful; Fred can’t get into the school football team; and their cat keeps on going on the neighbour’s roof – are fairly local and domestic. That’s partly because, in The Parent Agency, the main character goes into a magical universe; in this one, I wanted the magic to come into our universe; and it’s also partly because I think, for children, these small issues feel very, very large, and sometimes insurmountable. Or at least insurmountable without magic…
The thing I like most about children’s books is: when you write adult books, especially literary fiction, you have to get through a lot of gatekeepers, you have to be nominated for this or that award, you have to get this or that review, etc etc; but with kids, there’s none of that. They either like what you’ve written, or they don’t. There is a purity of response. No child – or parent, for that matter – is buying your kids’ book because they want it to be seen at dinner parties on their shelves. The Parent Agency was liked by kids: and they’ll let me know soon enough if they like The Person Controller. I hope they do.
David Baddiel is an author and comedian. He has written and performed in a series of highly successful TV comedy shows, including The Mary Whitehouse Experience and Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned. His debut children’s novel, The Parent Agency, was the bestselling 9-12 debut of 2014 and was hailed by the Guardian as ‘funny, sometimes moving and always engaging.’ The Person Controller is his second novel – and it confirms David as a brilliant and original new voice in children’s fiction. He lives in London.