There’s probably no Kiwi comic more qualified to write a kids’ book than the ever-effervescent Rhys Darby, so little surprise when Scholastic approached him for a gig. “They saw the success of David Walliams’s children’s books and thought, ‘Let’s get our comedian to write something’,” says Rhys. “I don’t think they expected what I did give them, which is sort of in the realm, but has another genre again, a kind of journal and sketchbook tangled within a mystery. So, I think I gave them more than what they expected in the end.”
Publisher Lynette Evans says working with Rhys was “a roller-coaster ride of ridiculousness”.
Rhys describes this second literary offering, The Top Secret Undercover Notes of Buttons McGinty (his first was This Way To Spaceship, “more for adults, if you can call it that because it’s not too adult-y”) as a “clue-laden, Indiana Jones-style notebook”. The first of a series, its sees its 12-year-old protagonist embark upon a series of adventures to track down his missing parents on a remote Pacific island. Readers must figure out clues and even crack Morse code—a skill that Rhys learnt during his stint in the armed forces. I suggest, “with the greatest of love”, that the comic doesn’t exactly come across as the military type.
“You’re right, I’m not! But I was at the start. I was 17, in the cadets, and the natural progression was to join the regular army. There was that sense of adventure, along with all the gadgets and weaponry that interested me growing up. But after about three years I realised that I’d had enough—and I didn’t want to be sent off to war.”
So, you never had to shoot anyone?
“No, never shot a man!”
Not even by accident?
Could you recall all the Morse code, or did you have to brush up for the book?
“Yeah, that was one of the most fun parts, reinvestigating and remembering the Morse code. I was very fluent in it—I was a signaller, so it was one of my jobs. I really wanted to include it in the book because it’s a classic thing and I think kids don’t really know about it anymore. So, it’s good to bring that back.”
Do you worry that kids are no longer invested enough in reading in general?
“I think kids in general have a short attention span. I’ve seen it through my children [Rhys has two boys, Theo aged eight, and 12-year-old Finn]. It all depends on how their brains are wired. My younger one is a good reader, the other not so much—but he is very physical and goes outside lots. It’s also hard to get them off the video games.”
Rhys says that he wrote the book with Theo in mind, to inspire his “adventurous spirit”. And it worked.
“Theo was the first person to read it and he loved it,” says the comic-cum-author. “He took it to school and read it at restaurants. When we were at home he’d make me read to him and do funny voices.”
Rhys lets out a big chuckle when asked about feedback from Finn. “He’s very supportive but is nearly 13 and would much rather be hanging out at the shopping mall with his girlfriends! But he’s very proud and talks about it on Instagram.”
Were you a keen reader as a kid?
“I was a reluctant reader, more into running about with a ball. The trick to getting me into reading was graphic novels. I also enjoyed Tintin and the funny side of things like Roald Dahl. They tapped into me, and this book was trying to capture what made me interested in turning a page. I hoped to do that for other young kids as well.”
There’s an element of Tintin with the adventures of Buttons McGinty.
“Absolutely. I actually wanted to become a journalist because of Tintin and lead a life of adventure. But by the time I got to university, comedy took over.”
Did being a comedian help with the writing, enabling you to better channel some silliness?
“Yeah, absolutely. Having two boys also keeps me young at heart. I’ve always been child-like, so having a nice avenue for my silly sense of humour is useful. I get to throw it onto the pages.”
Is it a different writing approach to stand-up?
“This book is not too dissimilar because it’s in journal form, which is how I write my comedy notebooks, thinking on the fly. But this time there is a big picture as opposed to shorter stories or jokes. I did also handwrite this, which is more the muscle that I’m used to using as a comedian. The layout is deliberately as if it was this kid’s notebook that he had put his scribbles and ideas in. It made sense to do it that way.”
Is it your handwriting?
“That’s actually a font. I wanted them to print it out as it was, but I think they thought my handwriting was a bit too messy for kids!”
Buttons McGinty is also adorned with Rhys’s illustrations. He reveals that sketching and doodling are part of his creative process. “My comedy notebooks are full of drawings,” continues Rhys. “Even on my honeymoon, I remember sitting on the beach and drawing pictures, and my wife was like, ‘Come on, let’s go get a drink, eh?’, and I was like, ‘Yeah, just let me finish this pyramid!’”
Were you in Egypt?
“Ha, no, I wish! We were in Thailand. Maybe I was drawing where I wished I was! But, Thailand was extremely nice.”
Released last month, Rhys’s book has already received rave reviews from those that matter most: the kiddie customers. “I’ve had lots of feedback, and even had kids sending me videos of themselves writing their own journals so it’s exciting to know it’s working,” he says. “It’s great because you might go off exploring somewhere and take some photos on your phone or iPad and never look at them again. But if you take some notes in a journal then that’s something you’ll have forever. You’ll likely go back and check it out one day and say, ‘Remember when we went on that adventure?’”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces
Photography: Kate Little
The Top Secret Undercover Notes of Buttons McGinty, Book 1,
by Rhys Darby, published by Scholastic, is out now.