The Parent Agency by David Baddiel, book review: He just tries too hard to be funny

Another children’s novel is promised from this author and he surely has the capacity to render it ultimately more successful than this one.

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The Independent Culture

Celebrity children’s books are not  always opportunistic or vanity projects.

David Walliams has established himself as an accomplished comic writer and Mackenzie Crook is on his second entertaining novel, which contains his own illustrations and a  treasure hunt at the end. So enter now comedian and author David Baddiel, writing for children for the first time and backed by a massive marketing campaign. His story describes how nine-year-old Barry Bennett, longing to change his nice but dull parents for something more glamorous, discovers his wish has suddenly been granted.

He then finds himself in a world where kids are able to choose their parents for themselves, with legions of adults eager to offer their services. But each of the initially attractive five couples Barry tries out for the day turn out to be anything but. Lord and Lady Rader-Wellorff are much too posh while celebrity Vlad Mitt and his wife Morrissina Padada can’t stop posing for photo-engagements. And so it goes on, with increasingly dysfunctional parent couples wheeled on as easy targets for satire. Finally Barry returns to his own parents and his formerly despised younger twin sisters, deciding like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz that there really is no place like home.

Any story that relies on the repetition of a single idea risks becoming over-predictable, and after finishing its 383 pages readers may well have had enough of Barry and his adventures. Baddiel is of course an intrinsically funny writer but the humour here is too often forced. Jokes about green bogeys or a village called Bottomley Bottom smack more of desperation than inspiration.

But there are some good moments too, where London is recreated as Youngdon along with its Playhouses of Parliament and Nelson-the-Bully-From-the-Simpsons-Column. There are also excellent illustrations by Jim Field, joint winner of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize for 2011. Baddiel got the idea for this book from a chat with his nine-year-old son. Ever since Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, great books have originated from stories first told to children before any idea of publication. But as any publisher’s slush pile has always attested, vast quantities of unreadable stories have started out this way too.

The Parent Agency is not in itself a bad story. Its central idea is a promising one and the writing flows easily. But it tries too hard for its laughs and features a young hero so unsympathetic to begin with that it’s hard to care what happens to him after that. Another children’s novel is promised from this author. He surely has the capacity to render it ultimately more successful than this one.