I Read David Walliams' Books... The SHOCKING Conclusion!

Hello everyone!

Well, last time on the blog, I did something I have never done before.  I left you on a cliffhanger.  For anyone who hasn't read part one of this post, you can find it here.  For those of you who did read it but have kind of forgotten the main points, here is a summary:

David Walliams is an English entertainer and comedian who roughly ten years ago decided to turn his hand to writing children's books.  I think he was one of the first of the recent deluge of celebrity authors for children.  Anyway, I had often criticised his books and discouraged children from reading them.  As a teacher, I felt they lacked academic nuance and stunted literary growth.  

I was not alone.  Many, many people had come out to say that Walliams' books were inappropriate for children.  Jack Monroe, a food writer (?) had this to say:

[Walliams' books are] sneering classist fatshaming grim nonsense.[1]

So I felt confident in my condemnation.  There was just one problem. 

I had never read a David Walliams book.  Not one.  I was basing my opinion entirely on his TV career and other people's opinions.  

So I read three books - his first, his most recent and one that I thought was the most popular.  In my previous post, I gave a brief summary of each of the books and offered my opinions on them as individual reads.  But what of Walliams' place in the school library?  Do I think, as a professional, that he deserves a place next to Dick King Smith, Lemony Snicket or Michael Morpurgo?  (If you think I've missed someone here, someone with the initials R.D., read this previous post!).

Here is the shocking conclusion...

What do I think overall?

I do find it difficult sometimes to separate my teacher-brain from my review brain.  There are TV shows and films I would recommend all day long and they have very little educational merit.  When it comes to books though, I have this thing where I feel they should educate as well as entertain.  And, unpopular opinion here, I think that's unfair.

Before I talk about the educational merits of Walliams' books, I need to tell you about a recollection I had while reading one of them.  When I was 10, my brother bought me a book for my birthday (my brother knew nothing about books so this was a total surprise!).  It was The Great Smile Robbery by Roger McGough (a poet).  I loved this book.  It made me laugh out loud and I read it over and over again.  I clearly remember being very proud of myself that I had read three chapters in one night.  Three!  There is also a direct line that can be drawn from this book and my own writing decades later.  And this Walliams book that I was determined not to enjoy was stirring memories of it.

Could it be possible that I was letting my adult brain influence my appreciation for a silly children's book?  Was I assuming that the fart jokes and silly words were only entertaining to the lowest common denominator?  I decided to conduct a little side experiment.  I found and ordered a copy of The Great Smile Robbery.  I would read it after the Walliams books and compare the humour.

Well, it turns out I could compare more than the humour.  The writing style; the pages taken up by a single word; the illustrations with labels that were used instead of prosaic description; the absurdity of the plot; even the language choices were all similar.  And I loved this book as a child.  So now I was in a bit of a bind.  Clearly, had David Walliams' books been around when I was the target demographic, I would have eaten them up.  It's just possible I would have to change my opinion.

Left:Walliams, D. (2010). Mr. Stink. Penguin.
Right: McGough, R. (1984). The great smile robbery. Penguin Uk.

So I looked at them from a different angle.  Instead of trying to prove that the books were terrible, I started to look at how they could be used in class.  After all, our job as educators is to encourage children to read.  I started out reading utter rubbish, apparently, and went on to develop a love of literature so great that I did my undergrad degree in it.  Is there a way to use the popularity of David Walliams' books in the classroom?

Is there educational merit in David Walliams' books?

Yes.  Yes there is.  As tawdry as Code Name Bananas is, it is set during World War 2, a common History topic for English Primary children.  There is no reason this book can't be used as a class reader alongside (or even instead of) more popular reads like Goodnight Mr Tom, Carrie's War or Rose Blanche.  That's right, I said it.  Code Name Bananas talks about Air Raid wardens, the Luftwaffe, the Blitz, evacuees... it's got everything you need.  On top of that, you can use the not-so-great writing to teach how to make it better.  With my newly unbiased teacher hat on, I saw a lot of ways this book could be used to great effect in the classroom.  And this was my least favourite one!  

The Ice Monster is similarly suitable, this time for the Victorians.  There is mention of HMS Victory, the Thames freezing over, the rich/poor divide, the death of Prince Albert... it's even a little Dickensian in places and there is a lot you can do with that.

The short chapters actually lend themselves quite well to in-class study as they are an ideal length to discuss and annotate and use as a base.  I was shocked that these books actually had academic merit, to be sure, but nothing quite prepared me for what my wife said when I told her my findings...

I mentioned previously that my undergraduate degree was in English Literature.  For my dissertation, I wrote a commentary on The Loss of Innocence in Classic Children's Literature - basically showing how, since 1865, books written purely to entertain children had gradually taken on darker and darker themes.  Anyway, that's not important.  The important thing is that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass made up a significant chunk of my research.

When I was telling her about the blatant similarities to Dahl in Walliams' writing, and she asked for examples, which were provided, she said:

how is that any different to slithy toves gyre-ing? or Jabberwocks whiffling?

And she's right.  I adore Carroll's writing - all of it (The Hunting of the Snark is one of my favourite poems), and he used a lot of nonsense.  He practically invented it.  Then Lear, another of my favourites, developed it.  Nonsense has been a huge part of my literary upbringing.  The books I enjoy today are so fantastical as to be considered absurd by many.  So what right do I have to condemn Walliams (or even Dahl) for theirs?  What's wrong with whimsy?  

In conclusion...

I said previously that I would ban books by David Walliams.  I think that was wrong.  I might suggest some further reading by different authors but I would also *gulp* recommend Walliams' books to children who didn't like reading.  I think they just might be a good segway into 'better' novels.  And by 'better', I think I mean 'more approved of by adults'. 

Thanks for reading to the very end of this.  I've tried a different approach to things this month, splitting my longer posts into two parts.  Let me know if you prefer it or if it's just annoying.  Also let me know what you think of David Walliams' books.  Do you like them? Loathe them?  Have you read them? I'd love to hear from you.

Wherever you are in the world, I hope you're having a good time and that people are wearing masks, getting vaccines and generally being sensible.  There is light at the end of the tunnel.  We're almost back to how things were...

Carl Headley-Morris

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References in this post:

[1] Harrison, E. (2020, July 7). David Walliams accused of fatshaming and classism in children’s books. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/david-walliams-childrens-books-racism-fatshaming-little-britain-jack-monroe-twitter-a9604091.html