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Author James shows children the funny things about writing

PUBLISHED: 13:04 10 January 2018 | UPDATED: 13:04 10 January 2018

Children's author James Campbell tests out ideas for his book at school visits around East Anglia. Picture: Contributed

Children's author James Campbell tests out ideas for his book at school visits around East Anglia. Picture: Contributed

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Suffolk children’s author and stand-up comic James Campbell loves to share his writing skills with schoolchildren in East Anglia and he’s not sure who gets most out of it - them or him - as his new book, The Funny Life Of Pets, is full of their stories.

'It has no plot, no beginning and no end' - James Campbell's new book, The Secret Life Of Pets. Picture: Contributed 'It has no plot, no beginning and no end' - James Campbell's new book, The Secret Life Of Pets. Picture: Contributed

With his 20s taken up leading writing workshops at primary schools during the day and performing at comedy clubs at night, James Campbell has earned his stripes as a successful children’s author.

Now 44 the Suffolk-based father-of-three has seen his debut book, Boyface and the Quantum Chromatic Disruption Machine, spawn three more published adventures about his young hero, who is put in charge of the family business of stripemongering, taking the patterns from things and placing them on something else – how else could you explain a tartan badger?

Spring next year promises a new book, The Funny Life of Pets, which draws heavily from his comedy stand-up routines he entertains the children with on his primary school visits. There are also more productions promised of his musical, Boyface and The Uncertain Ponies, which involved a talented young team of actors and crew from Suffolk schools when it was performed at the Apex Theatre, in Bury St Edmunds, last month.

James is keen to impress to the schoolchildren how perspiration, more than inspiration has carved his career path.

He says: “I tell them how hard I’ve worked. I’m not one of those people that says follow your dream and it will come true, but I do believe anyone can become a writer.

“I didn’t come from a family of writers. The authors I was reading as a child - Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter – all seemed to live in castles. I was brought up on a council estate.”

Still, the desire to write came early for James, growing up in St Neots, Cambridgeshire. He started to put together his own stories aged seven.

“I remember one early story,” says James, “involving a boy who went to clean his teeth and fell down the sink plug hole into a magical world. It was like a cross between Narnia and B&Q.”

His early story, James says, were inspired by the books he was reading, and he devoured books as a child.”

“I would read anything that I could get my hands on. My favourite book as a child was Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, but my tastes were broad.

“I owe that to my Uncle Ray. He didn’t have kids and he would give me stuff to read that wasn’t really age appropriate, such as Shakespeare and The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.”

James carried on writing into his 20s while performing stand-up at comedy clubs and helping out at a local primary school. His stand-up skills helped him interact with the children and the kid-friendly material grew into shows, Comedy 4 Kids and its new incarnation The Funny Thing About…, he has taken around hundreds of schools in East Anglia as well as venues around the world.

James is not sure who gets the most out of the workshops – the children or him.

He says: “I get to test out new ideas at the schools. It gives me an opportunity to share my work and has really helped me with writing.”

And just as James’ seven-year-old imagination spurred his love of writing and reading, he is finding the similarly-aged children he meets at the school visits full of inspired ideas.

“I remember asking one boy what had happened to him that day,” says James. “He told his dog had eaten his favourite pair of pants. I said: ‘You have a favourite pair of pants?’ and he replied: ‘Not anymore, the dog ate them.’ That went in the book.”

The book is The Funny Life of Pets, illustrated by Rob Jones, which is scheduled to be released in June next year by Bloomsbury publishers.

James says the book is designed for youngsters used to web surfing with story links rather than page numbers to lead your reading.

He says: “It has no plot, no beginning and no end. You follow sign posts to different pages. It’s a wonderful way to get the style and feel of my live comedy shows over in a book.”

Although, James says that humour is not essential for a children’s book – “Michael Morpugo doesn’t have many jokes” - his stand-up shows have been a rich source of many of the ideas in the Boyface series of stories, published by Hodder Children’s Books. James also drew on his friends and family.

He says: “When my eldest child was a baby I noticed a lot of his clothes were stripey and an idea came to me of taking the stripes off his cardigan and putting them on the dog.”

The idea then took shape when James and his young son went to visit a farm in Felixstowe. “It was a school day, but the farm seemed to be run by just one boy – quite a tough lad - who brought out all these animals for us to pet.”

And so in the book, its hero, Boyface Antelope, has to step in and run his parents’ stripemongery when they fall ill – with some chaotic results.

James says such real-life inspiration gives some grounding of reality and humanity to the “nonsense”. Friends and family of the author should probably take a close look at his books and see if there are some characters they recognise.

“There are lots of characters in the series that were based on friends. It is just me taking the mickey out of them – most of them don’t know, I think.”

It is likely if James’ immediate family saw themselves in his books they would not care. James now has three children with his wife, Nina – sons Hayden, 11, and Joe, 10, and daughter Daphne, two, and the boys are no longer ideal sounding boards for story ideas.

“I do try out ideas with them,” James says, “but they don’t listen to me. Whatever I come up with to Hayden he will shoot it down.”

He adds: “I think children stop you more than inspire you” - a statement coloured by having spent all day caring for all three of his, struck down by colds, while Nina is at work.

James can still find inspiration from the countryside which surrounds his home just outside Bury St Edmunds. “I do a lot of walking,” he says. “There is something about walking in the countryside, the way it changes with the seasons, and listening to the skylarks – though for how much longer I don’t know – that is great for thinking.

“Suffolk is just rolling and hilly enough to be interesting, without needing to grab a compass.”

Among the new ideas has been writing a stage musical, Boyface and the Uncertain Ponies, with his musician brother, which involved weekly rehearsals with a cast of 37 “just wonderful” children for one sell-out night at the Apex Theatre last month. There are plans to bring that show to the Lakeside Theatre, in Colchester, next year and the Campbell brothers are working on a new musical, Boyface and the Christmas Jumper, which is set for the Apex in August.

For more details on these shows, James’s school tour dates for 2018 and the release of The Funny Life of Pets, get in touch with James through his website here Facebook page @jccomedyforkids and Twitter @comedycampbell

What was your favourite book as a child?

Books from our childhood can stay with us for life and our crucial in building our imaginative world. We asked readers what their favourite books were when they were young and why.

Tim Gould: “Watership Down is a classic adventure and took me to a different world with heroes and villains where good overcomes evil.”

Sharna Pratchett: “The His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman really developed my love of books as a child, I even convinced my stepmom to read them! I enjoyed the books so much I named my daughter after the main character Lyra. I have now started reading the first book to my daughter and she is hooked.”

Chris Grover: “I loved reading my children the Kipper the Dog books by Mick Inkpen. One of my friends lived in Nayland, near him and managed to get us the odd signed copy!”

Hilary Bugg: “I loved The Elves and the Shoemaker by The Brothers Grimm when I was young… (that was a long while ago!!)

“I used to lose myself in this story and read it over and over again, it is a magical story.”

Charlotte Smith-Jarvis: “A book I absolutely adore is The Jolly Postman by Allan and Janet Ahlberg. Although my children have grown out of it, I can’t bring myself to give the book away. I remember, as a kid, being so excited reading it myself, turning each page, prising open the envelopes and poring over each word of the letters inside. I’ll be holding onto it for my grandchildren!”

David Vincent: “There Was An Old Woman Who Swallowed was a great book to read to my children when they were young; and to practise the song and sing it on holiday journeys together in the car.

“Now my grandchildren have the same illustrated book, and love it just as much.”

Rebekah Rodwell: “I absolutely loved the Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton which I believe is still popular.”

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