There have been many comparisons between Walliams and Roald Dahl. As well as Quentin Blake’s distinctive illustrations, of course, there’s the familiar use of slapstick comedy, bodily functions, filthy beards, neglectful parents and underdog child heroes that hark back to the Dahl books we all grew up reading.
But the comparison between Walliams and Dahl goes deeper than that. Just as Dahl’s James is an orphan, Matilda’s parents don’t understand her and Charlie Bucket’s family has no money, so Walliams’ characters all experience hardship of some kind. In each book, they must overcome some problem or adversity and become the hero of their own story.
In an interview with Channel 4, Walliams once explained that children respond to darkness in stories, saying “the best children’s books are the ones that you might read under the covers with a torch. They’re the most exciting children’s books.”
He also expressed his view that “the tension between the darkness and the humour” in Dahl’s books, as well as the “incredible messages” they contain, is what makes them so extraordinary.
Yes, kids love comedy and making people laugh just so happens to sell books. But Walliams’ stories are more than just bottom burps and grannies in underpants; they have a genuine heart and humanity, delivered with a comedic skill that balances out the dark moments. They also open up difficult conversations between kids and parents that many of us are guilty of avoiding.
If your kids have ever been moved to tears by a Walliams book – right before laughing at Raj’s latest exploits – you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about! And if they’re yet to discover the Walliams world, here’s a brief rundown of the issues these best-selling books discuss [warning – contains SPOILERS!]:
While it might be hard to sympathise with the heir to a billion-pound toilet roll empire, who has his own cinema and pet orangutan, 12-year-old Joe Spud (aka Billionaire Boy) gains readers’ sympathy because he doesn’t have the one thing kids really want: friends. Not only that, but he’s bullied by the other kids – a topic that’s also explored in The Boy in the Dress, Ratburger and Mr Stink. Walliams has talked about his own experiences of being bullied at school, and the incident where Joe Spud is teased for being last in the cross-country run was based on his own school life: “That happened to me,” he told The Scottish Sun. “You put a lot of yourself in books and some parts are autobiographical.”
Death and ageing
Death is one of those topics we don’t want to discuss, but Walliams handles it sensitively. It can be heart-breaking for young readers when a beloved character dies, or when they learn about a tragedy that someone else has experienced. In some cases, death is used as a vehicle for the story – for example, the death of Stella Saxby’s parents in Awful Auntie triggers Aunt Alberta’s quest for Stella’s inheritance; but in other cases, such as the Demon Dentist, it can seem out-of-the-blue and unnecessarily tragic. In Mr Stink, when children learn about the tragic incident surrounding his wife’s death, they also realise the devastating effect somebody’s death has on their loved ones – a pretty deep concept for your average 8-11-year-old!
When you think about it, most of Walliams’ characters are pretty lonely – from Joe Spud to Zoe in Ratburger, whose only friends seem to be of the rodent variety. Mr Stink is perhaps the loneliest of all – when Chloe first meets him, Walliams poignantly writes: “He seemed lonely too, not just alone, but lonely in his soul. That made Chloe sad. She knew full well what it was like to feel lonely.” The way he’s treated by the other characters (apart from Chloe, of course) challenges young readers to question how they treat people who are less fortunate than them, and to look at ‘loners’ in a different light.
Much like his idol Roald Dahl, Walliams has realised that dysfunctional families make a great catalyst for fantasy and adventure stories. In fact, it’s easier to find imperfect or unconventional families in his books than it is a stereotypical, 2:4 set-up! From Dennis’ divorced parents in The Boy in the Dress, to orphaned Stella Saxby, and Alfie in the Demon Dentist, who’s put into social care when his father becomes too ill to take care of him – these plot points aren’t just entertainment; they are issues that, unfortunately, many children have had to face at some point.
Again, this is something that resonates with Walliams on a personal level. Having been teased at school for being (in his words) effeminate, Walliams made a comedic career out of his camp persona and penchant for donning a dress! His first children’s book, The Boy in the Dress, was actually inspired by a fan who sent him a photo of himself dressed as Little Britain character Emily Howard. Walliams admired the boy’s bravery and felt inspired to write a children’s story based on the theme of being different; while this is an issue that both adults and children can relate to, it was in fact brave of Walliams to tackle diversity and gender in a book aimed at children.
To young readers, a boy wearing a dress is pretty funny; but hopefully, they’ll take away the part where Lisa James – the most beautiful girl in the school – tells Dennis: “You can be whoever you want to be!”
Walliams has touched on illness in his previous books – for example, ageing and memory loss in Grandpa’s Great Escape. Set in a children’s hospital, his latest book – The Midnight Gang – looks set to be just as emotional as his previous books. We wonder just how much he’ll explore childhood illness and mortality – but we’re also certain that he’ll offset this sombre topic with his usual comedic flair.
Commenting on the book, executive publisher Ann-Janine Murtagh has called it a “beautiful, brave and big-hearted story, full of warmth and humour.” Meanwhile, The Times has called it “funny, original and thought-provoking,” and The Telegraph “a triumphant mix of wit and warmth.”
There aren’t many children’s books that can make you laugh and cry in one sitting. Which David Walliams moments have had the most impact on your children?