The World of David Walliams Novel 1 – ‘The Boy in the Dress’
Throughout most of my childhood, I had been told I had an ‘old soul’. I grew up around a lot of adults, had a lot of personal responsibility as a teenager, and (so my mother tells me) took on the challenges of burgeoning adulthood with a maturity far beyond my years. So it’s a little bit ironic, really, that I now quite enjoy partaking in a few more ‘childish’ activities.
Swings and roundabouts, I guess, wouldn’t you say?
Now I’m not talking about poking my tongue out at the old bat across the street, or throwing tantrums on the super market floor when Ryan won’t let me buy another box of BBQ shapes (though I may pout a little). What I’m referring to are the more simple pleasures of childhood – the colouring in, the dot-to-dots, the fancy dress, and above all, the reading of children’s stories.
As a teacher, I am blessed with the ability to share my love of reading with my students. We always choose a class novel at the beginning of each term, and I delight in reading aloud to the absolute dead silence of the otherwise chaotic classroom. Currently, we’re reading a story by Australian author Colin Thiele (of ‘Storm Boy’ fame) called ‘The Hammerhead Light’ – a bit heavy for a Grade 4 cohort, but they chose it, so who was I to say no? The best part is that they love it just as much as they would something more light-hearted – this is what really makes my heart sing, when I know my passion and thirst for literature is being passed on. I love to discuss the characters with the children, giving them personalities with my inflection in the way I read (I do a wicked pompous old lady) – and the best books to do this with are the all-rounder classics. Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, just to name a few, are authors I can read aloud over and over again and never get tired.
For this reason, I was probably more excited than most when I spied The World of David Walliams box set in our small selection of books for sale in the staff room. Every fortnight we get a new sample of fiction and non-fiction books to view and order – one of the highlights of my day, even if it means I buy more books than I should (if there even is such a thing!). David Walliams, for those not in the know, is one half of the hilarious British comedy duo Little Britain (he’s the tall one, rather than the bald one – “computer says no!” etc…). I’d already bought the Roald Dahl box set a few months prior, and as soon as I saw that Walliams used Quentin Blake as the illustrator (Roald Dahl’s illustrator!) I knew I couldn’t let them pass. Even better – another chance to stretch my ‘book review’ muscles! Excellent!
I’m not the first person to compare Walliams’s work to the unparalleled universe of Roald Dahl. Walliams himself has blithely spoken of his adoration of the techniques and motives of Dahl, particularly the way Dahl’s classic novels seek to empower children, despite an underlying cruelty and subtle harshness to each storyline. His fantasy worlds mix with reality in a way that is timeless, and Walliams has been quoted as saying “Twenty years after his death, the beauty of Dahl’s status as an author is that his work is regarded as populist entertainment, which places him just outside the “great literature” bracket. Future generations of children will carry on reading his books simply because they want to, not because they have to, for the pure pleasure of luxuriating in Dahl’s imagination. What more could any writer ask for?”.
It was with this thought in mind that I turned the first page of Walliams’s first novel, ‘The Boy in the Dress’.
What struck me immediately was…mediocrity. I was a little disappointed. Sure, Walliams had all the essential elements of a good children’s novel – funny, off-hand one liners, a sly, cheeky way of poking fun at adults, and a good way of seeing the world through a child’s eyes. It was all written nicely in simplistic, yet not-idiotic prose…but he lacked the sophisticated imagery that I know and love from Dahl. Ok, I thought to myself – maybe I’m being a bit harsh! It’s his first novel. I’ll keep reading and decide at the end.
Slowly, as I continued through the book, I became aware of how wrong my first impressions had been. Dennis, our main character, reads like a melancholic, small English town poster boy – living with his dad and older brother in a broken home, feeling unloved and lonely, with aspirations far out of his (supposed) reach. My heart ached for this poor fictional boy and his sad circumstances, and the tenderness with which Walliams explores his character’s less ‘traditional’ side made me feel like Walliams writing really had a lot more sophistication than I gave him credit for.
Yes, I decided, maybe Walliams wasn’t quite up to the breath-taking standard of Roald Dahl, but his novel had merits all of its own. I LOVED the topic of the story – a boy who hates living his boring life and wants nothing more than to wear a dress. What a fantastic idea, I thought, what a touching way to address what is still, sadly, a very misunderstood and heavily judged topic in today’s society. This is what started to endear me to the book – the contemporary theme mixed with the innocence and whit of a children’s story.
Sure, Dennis faces his complications – of course, a story where it’s perfectly acceptable for a boy to wear a dress for no other reason than because he likes it would not be so powerful if it didn’t address some of the prejudices that such an act would incite in a mainstream community. However, Walliams’s approach to exploring these underlying social issues is to create a hopeful fictional world where problems such as boys missing out on their football grand final are met with more derision from the adults than a boy in a dress (or in fact a whole football team of boys in dresses). My favourite lines towards the end went something like this;
All the boys in the team lined up defiantly behind their captain, striking poses like they were dancers in a Madonna video. The crowd went wild.
“Woo!” shouted Darvesh, as he hitched up his skirt and weaved round a defender.
The characters are suitably stereotypical, yet diverse enough to appeal to a wide variety of readers, and I saw hints of Roald Dahl’s own genius (especially in the school teachers, though I may be a bit opinionated in that area!).
My first impression of mediocre writing was definitely overcome by the end of the book. It’s a children’s book – simplicity is essential when addressing heavy issues. Anyone who knows Little Britain knows that Walliams is no stranger to the effeminate way of thinking, and his compassion and the proudness with which he writes of this less-than-conservative topic make it a novel I will place firmly in the favourites basket.
Luckily for me, I have five more books to go!