Children's Books

Jim Smith is a Winner – ‘Barry Loser’ Author Talks World Book Day and Becoming a Father

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Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

Jim Smith admits inspiring isn’t a word often associated with his name. However, the terrific children’s author and illustrator, who won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize in 2013 for the second instalment in his popular Barry Loser book series, ‘I Am Still Not A Loser’, is anything but dull.   

The Coke-can obsessed father-to-be, whose bubbling character names and stories have children in fits of laughter; is also the man behind the witty Waldo Pancake product line.

Barry Loser continues to go from strength to strength and comma putter-innerer Jim has now written a keel (which means cool apparently) £1 short book ‘I Am Not Nit A Loser’, especially for today, which just happens to be World Book Day 2014.

Sam Skelding caught up with him to talk ‘smellchecking’, illustrating coffee cups, fatherhood and the importance of getting children into reading.

How did the £1 book for World Book Day come about?

I was doing the range of Barry Loser books with Egmont my publisher, there’s around four or five of those out at the moment. I was working on number four and we got the opportunity to do a World Book Day book, which is around half the length of one my regular books and you don’t really say no to a chance like that, because you’re getting your books into the hands of practically the whole country’s primary school children. So I had to knock out two books instead of one but it was all fine in the end!

How important are events like this for children?

It’s just for all of those kids who don’t have books at home. They get the chance to get a free book with a token, choosing from a list of ten. It’s pretty amazing to be able to give them one to choose from, I mean not that my books are going to make them into intellectuals or anything, but it’ll hopefully entertain them.

So is making your books accessible to children who aren’t necessarily fans of reading, a motivation?

Absolutely, none of us really have that much time so I like the idea of short books, little bursts and short chapters, the reader being able to take in a page really quickly, big pictures and small blocks of text. Even though when I read really long novels, they’re actually the best aren’t they? But short books make a great starting point.

What were your favourite books as a child and have they changed?

Well I don’t still read kids books [Laughter]. I obviously liked Roald Dahl and I read Mad Magazine, did you ever read that? That was one of my favourites. I was also sort of obsessed with Coke cans and collected them; they would have bits about America. I would read all the writing on those which might be why I’m attached to writing really short things. I know that sounds ridiculous.

You may have already given me the answer to this but if you could brand any product in the world with your wonderful illustrations, would it be a Coke can?

Yes, it certainly would. I’ve got issues with how it’s developed and I don’t think the Coke can in England is as good as it could be. I think I could make it perfect [Laughter]. It’s a pretty bold claim! You know it used to say Coke on one side and Coca Cola on the other side of the can, now it doesn’t. It says Coca Cola on both sides which really annoys me, because I used to be amazed that the product had two names and there are not really many products you can say that about. I think it’s a real shame.

Should I re-title this interview ‘Jim Smith vs. Coca Cola can’?

I do feel strongly about this.

What are the origins of the ‘Barry Loser’ series?

Well I was still working on designs for Puccino’s Coffee Company, I still am now, and I was getting a monthly retainer from them which I lived on for years. When the credit crunch arrived they took that away, so suddenly I needed to find somewhere else to make some money. I’d always wanted to write longer stories and that gave me the kick-up-the-bum to do it. I sent it out to agents and luckily got one and she managed to get me the book deal.

Is Barry Loser based on a real person?

Yes, it’s based on me when I was a kid. I really enjoyed that time so my head is always pretty much back there! The book’s really based around the excitement of when you’re a little kid. I think I just try and engage the eight-year old part of my brain and hope that children like it as well. I really try to a be a bit subversive with that stuff and if it isn’t too blatant I think it’s because I sense that something is a little bit off in this. That’s what appealed to me when I was a kid, like a slight hint towards the adult world but not explicitly.

Are the illustrations the starting point?

Not really. The situation and initial conflict is usually in place before I add the drawings, although sometimes I do think of a funny little picture and create a story around that. I’ve always been more into pictures really and although there were plenty of books around the house when I was a kid, I’ve always loved drawing and nothing can beat cartooning.  

Do you start with the noses?

No [Laughter]. I start with the eyes.

Your character names are hilarious! Where do they come from?

Well there’s one called Mrs Trumpet Face and that’s actually what we called the woman down our street when we were kids, so that one was already there. I just had Granny Harumpadunk lying around in a sketch-book. I suppose nice guttural names are just what I like; it’s all personal taste isn’t it?

You refer to yourself as the ‘comma putter-innerer’ and ‘spell-checker’. Is this a reflection of how you see yourself as an author?

Yes definitely, I’m not trying to claim I’m an ‘author’ I suppose and hiding behind that. Also, the name Jim Smith is so boring I can hide that away a bit as well.

Talking of strange names, how did the Waldo Pancake brand arrive?

When I left University I got the job designing coffee cups for Puccino’s and they were a local franchise chain near where I lived in Twickenham. They took me on for three months on a trial and I did some designs for them in around 1998. That went on and on, being renewed, and I developed this text-based style while I was there. I think in about 2011, I sent off a few designs to a company called ‘Really Good Cards’ and that was the start of it. I realise this has been a really long answer.

The tone of the Waldo Pancake products is so different to the Barry Loser series, which one is closest to you?

Oh, I think if you combine the two you’d get the perfect reflection of me. The poo-jokes meeting the sarcasm.

You’re going to be a Dad for the first time, how are you feeling?

I’m feeling like I’m getting asked ‘how I’m feeling?’ a lot [Laughter]. I’m just not worrying about it too much because these things just have to be dealt with when they happen, but obviously excited at the same time. He’s beginning to really push out the belly now so I’m quite looking forward to meeting him. He’s a boy but he’s not called Barry.

You have a penchant for creative names, will his name be unusual?

Possibly, it’s not too crazy. I obviously can’t give it away but it’s not too normal either.

Talking of challenges ahead, how important is the parenting role in early reading experiences?

Well there’s no doubt about it. It gives your kid a head-start if they’re better readers early on. I think it’s pretty fundamental so I’m going to be making sure he reads lots or at least gets read-to a lot.

And reading for fun?

Yeah, I’m definitely going to separate the two to incorporate reading for pleasure. I mean who wants to read just to be smart, surely it should all be pleasurable.

You offer free E-books on the Barry Loser site; do authors have a responsibility to make their books accessible?

I’m not sure I would call it a responsibility but it’s one of the nice things about having the internet, that you can just throw stuff out there that you have lying around or isn’t long enough to warrant charging for. Authors must always have had stuff lying around but had no way of getting it out there. I just think it’s just a nice way of communicating in general.

Technology is being used more and more, will your son be getting an E-reader?

At first, definitely not but I think he’ll definitely be on the I-pad using some kid apps and stuff like that, although there are probably some good picture books made for the I-pad so I’m not going to rule anything out!