David Cadji-Newby is a BBC comedy writer, novelist, and the author and founding partner of Lost My Name, a pioneering digital publishing company. We talk to him about work/life balance and what family means to him.
Lost My Name began as an idea between 4 friends – 3 fathers and an uncle – in 2012. They recently secured $9m of funding from a Silicon Valley investor and have sold more than 700,000 copies worldwide in 7 languages, making it the best selling children’s picture book last year.
Yesterday, the team launched their second title, The Incredible Intergalactic Journey Home.
We caught up with the author David Dadji-Newby to talk about writing the most technologically advanced picture book ever made and how he balances work and life with his son Elias…
How did the idea for Lost My Name come about?
Asi (one of the co-founders of Lost My Name) was given a personalised book and was really impressed by the idea. After the realisation that it’s a cut and paste concept – the child’s name is in place of some other name – it was underwhelming. We decided that personalisation was a nice idea but nobody did it well. I had worked with Asi in the past and he had worked with Tal. We found Pedro, the illustrator, in the process. We’re now around 70 people in the office in Hackney.
Did the success of Lost My Name surprise you or was it carefully strategised?
It was a complete and total surprise, we did it as a bit of fun between us. The way it has grown is extraordinary. It was a sideshow – I wrote all the stories in the evenings and weekends, the whole alphabet. We were still in our day jobs and the first Christmas (2013) there was a lot of investment of time and energy. Elias was still sleeping quite early so I had my evenings to write.
Personalisation is easy to do as a gimmick, but not easy to do as a central part of the story. Losing your name and finding it one letter at time, or taking a journey back to your own front door, forms the story rather than being a cut and paste add-on.
What’s on the agenda?
The new book is really exciting. In The Incredible Intergalactic Journey Home, the child finds where they live. You start in the universe, then find your solar system, planet, continent, country, region, town, finally finding your home. It’s a story of concentric circles. We use Bing maps, a tech mapping company, for the satellite images which make up the last few pages of the book and lead the child to their own front door.
What made it work?
Parents love to see their own kid’s name in print, it makes the reading experience more magical for them (and the children) if the child is in the book – I think it also helps to instil a love of reading early on.
What is your favourite moment in the day?
Walking in the door after work – I hear my dog Cagney barking, my wife shouting ‘hello!’ and Elias jumping off his bed and running downstairs. I try to be there once a week to pick him up from school and take him to activities, but he’s usually in bed when I get back but not asleep. We always start the day by having breakfast in bed together with the BBC news on. That’s the time we use to catch up.
Hands-on parent or happy to outsource?
Hands on. I taught Elias to ride his bike. We try and do everything we can with him. Weekends we’re always together and doing stuff. We have a cleaner and my wife Emmanuelle is a teacher and so Elias goes to after-school club with his best friend for an hour, but that’s it.
What do you often mutter under your breath?
There was a point where there was a lot of Minecraft – a weird father-son activity of pseudo-building, and I had a while there where I used to think, ‘Really? More Minecraft?’
Rate your parenting skills out of 10…
Blimey. I’m alright. I think I’m pretty good. A seven? He does think I’m funny, that’s the strength. The weakness is patience. But we all have that, don’t we?
What’s the key to a great children’s story?
The key is to make sure that both child and parent enjoy it. Stories come alive in the reading and if the parent doesn’t enjoy reading it, then the child isn’t not going to – reading is more of a transaction than a one way process.
Why is fiction important for kids?
I think fiction can teach children about possibilities, you can be anything, do anything. It opens different possibilities in your mind. Kids are quire rule bound at home and definitely at school and not much isn’t goverened by timetable and schedule, fiction provides some escapism.
Current favourite story in your house?
When I was writing the book, he would always choose the same story over and over and that would drive me crazy: I knew what I would like to be reading. I’d make up some nonsense about meeting a bear or a gorilla on the the tube, I couldn’t explain what I did at work but I wanted to delight him about my journey home. While he’s one of our guinea pigs, Elias is 9 now and pretty much reading on his own. He talks to me about what he’s reading but it’s Marvel graphic novels…
What’s the ideal work/life balance?
It would be nice to have an hour of play every day with my son – if I could do that I’d be very happy.
Will Elias follow in your footsteps as a storyteller?
No chance, he wants to be an archeologist!
What do you do for headspace?
Walk the dog.
Family-fling or dirty weekend?
Family fling, definitely. I’d go skiing in the Alps, we go to Megeve every year: skiing with your kid is the best thing in world.
If you could have your time over, what would you do differently?
It’s not very significant, but when Elias was little, every year or two I’d say, ‘I wish I had a pill to stop his development so he’ll stay like this forever’. The next year I would think the same thing but, looking back on it, it just kept getting better. In hindsight, I realise that this is just something great and getting better all the time and there’s no point trying to capture it.
Sorry, your time’s up. What’s on your headstone?
‘Family and fun came first’.