Jewish Telegraph, July 2023
A QUIP three years ago has led to comedy writer Ivor Baddiel penning a new children’s book.
While Ben’s Bonkers Bar Mitzvah (Green Bean Books) may be aimed primarily at Jewish children, comedy writer Ivor believes it will have appeal to all children.
“I was in a meeting at my publishers about something else,” he recalled. “Miriam Farbey, who commissioned my first-ever book, was bemoaning the lack of Jewish books for kids; fun Jewish books, because a lot of books are about the festivals or whatever.
“Just off the top of my head, I went, ‘what about a book called Ben’s Barmy Bar Mitzvah?’
“And she just said, ‘Yeah, that sounds great’.”
Ivor, who wrote for television shows like X Factor and the National Television Awards, was put in touch with PJ Library — an organisation that sends Jewish books to Jewish children for free.
The 60-year-old spoke to UK representative Madeline Travis and realised he knew her husband Theo, who has played saxophone for David Gilmour and Pink Floyd.
“She told me that they don’t have a word for barmy in America. And that’s when it changed to ‘bonkers’,” Ivor added. “And they went, ‘Yeah, we like the idea of doing two or three sample chapters’, which is great.
“Except you have to find a story. That’s the hard bit. How do I actually make this into something interesting and compelling?
“Essentially, the story is about Ben, who is coming up to his barmitzvah. And he discovers that the shul disappears and aliens are behind it, but nobody believes him.
“So essentially, they take the mickey out of him and think he’s being silly and put it all down to nerves before his barmitzvah.
“You won’t be surprised to learn that eventually he does save the world from all these aliens, who are trying to take over the planet.”
Ivor, brother of Jews Don’t Count author David Baddiel, describes it as “partly my story” about not wanting to grow up.
“Because nobody believes Ben about the aliens, they make fun of him and he gets into a bit of a grump about not wanting to have his barmitzvah,” he said.
“He is like ‘who wants to be a grown up anyway?’ Being a grown up is rubbish, you have to work, you have to do this, you have to do all these grown up things, I don’t want to be a grown up, I want to stay a child’,
“No one wants to really grow up. But through saving the world from these aliens, Ben proves himself more than ready to be a man and ready to take on responsibility.”
He added: “Obviously, it’s aimed at Jewish readers, aged around eight to 11, and it’s a fun, exciting story about aliens and someone trying to save the world . . . who doesn’t like that. So I’d like to think that all kids would like it.”
Ivor revealed that at the end of the year he has a picture book coming out for three and four-year-olds about Chanukah.
“Those kind of books are direct ways of learning about Judaism, whereas Ben’s Bonkers Bar Mitzvah is a slightly indirect way.
“If you’re not Jewish, there is some education about barmitzvahs and Judaism in there.”
Educating children is something close to Ivor’s heart as he used to be a primary school teacher.
“Whatever you write, there’s always an element of education. My last kids’ novel, Britain’s Smartest Kid . . . On Ice!, on one level it’s a fun story about a very intelligent boy. But actually, underneath it all, he’s being bullied,” Ivor explained.
Ivor added that he has to be careful about some words he uses in books for children.
He said there were concerns about the word ‘crazy’ in Britain’s Smartest Kid.
But he feels vindicated after just last week a woman told him at a party how much her daughter loved the book.
“It’s just magical to hear that,” he said.
“I go into schools and talk about writing. And one of the kids almost always asks me, ‘what’s the favourite thing you’ve ever done?’
“I’m not happy with everything really. But I talk about this little picture book, my wife Sophie and I wrote 15 years ago, Cock-A-Doodle Quack! Quack!
“I read to three, four or five year olds in a school, and it’s magical in this day and age when there’s so much on your phone and on your computer.
“But it’s a very simple, beautifully illustrated story. And they are just wrapped. They just sit there and they love it. Its still engrosses them; it’s incredible.”
Another selling point for Ben’s Bonkers Bar Mitzvah is the illustrations of Private Eye cartoonist Zoom Rockman.
“I love his whole family,” Ivor said. “They literally live in the next street to where I am now. Zoom’s younger brother Ace was in the same year at school as my son.
“Zoom did a few roughs for my book, which were pretty good. I really like his style.
“He has a very good visual sense of humour, which obviously helps.”
Ivor, who credits his late father Colin for his sense of humour, then made a revelation — Ben’s sister may take over as the star of a sequel.
“The original family in the book was mum, dad, Ben and his older brother,” he said. “But Michael Leventhal at Green Bean said to give him a younger sister, Carla, because I can follow up with a story about her batmitzvah.
“Discussions are underway at the moment about that. I haven’t quite got an idea yet.
“If I can find the right idea, there will be some sort of follow up — Carla’s Crazy or Cosmic Kiddush. Nothing is quite jumping out yet.
“It doesn’t have to be an alliteration.”
Ivor has also written a number of books for adults and is currently compiling a photo book called Simchas of the Seventies with friends Eddie Gershon and Howard Robinson.
The book will raise money for Chai Cancer Care.
Two years ago, Grean Bean Books released Jewish Chocolate Recipes from Around the World, which donated money to Chai.
After Ivor spoke with Michael, the idea to raise money for Chai through their simcha book came to fruition.
“We were going to call it either Shkoyach, Please God by You or Barmitzvahs of the 1970s, but we opened it up a bit more to simchas of the 1970s,” Ivor laughed.
“It is for a good cause and we need a big bank of photographs to finish the book off.”
He added: “I’ve written a piece for shul magazines for Rosh Hashana asking for photos.”
Simcha pictures should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org