The English author weaves fantastic tales for children with beautiful prose, strange words and funny gibberish
The first in the series of The World’s Worst Children by David Walliams comes with a warning by Raj the news agent, a recurring character in the author’s books. This book, he warns, “will give children lots and lots of ideas how to be even naughtier than they already are”. He wonders why Walliams will not write about “nice children who do nice things” (he has, more on it later). But if Walliams had listened to Raj the newsagent, we wouldn’t have its wickedly delightful sequel, The World’s Worst Children 2 (Harper Collins India).
“I spend a lot of time visiting schools around the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada,” says Walliams, over a phone call from the UK. “Children seem to find The World’s Worst Children enjoyable to read. I had so much fun writing it. And I told them that I’d write another one. After all, there are more than ten children in the world.” This time around, another set of ten extremely disgraceful children join the hallowed hall of the worst kids ever.
Cast of characters
Meet Spoiled Brad, who lives in a one-hundred-bedroom mansion and doesn’t care about the amazing things he owns, including a robot to play with because he doesn’t have any friends. Then there’s Stacey Superstar who is convinced she’s destined for stardom, but doesn’t have talent. And Gruesome Griselda who “never brushed her hair so it’s like a bird’s nest, topped with a grotty purple hair scrunchie.” Anyone who has ever complained about annoying parents and their prodigies in flights or cinema halls will think they were comparatively nice and polite after reading these books.
Walliams began writing at a time when Harry Potter was huge (or as he points out, is still huge). “I wanted to do something different. I thought let’s set something in the real world, with real emotions, that challenges people,” he says. His first book, The Boy in the Dress (2008), landed up with Quentin Blake who illustrated many of Roald Dahl books. “He read it, and liked it, wanted to illustrate it. It was a seal of approval and a giant opportunity as well,” recalls Walliams. His more recent books have been illustrated by Tony Ross.
Man of many talents
Grown-ups may know Walliams as a comedian and television star – he has acted in the Agatha Christie series, Partners in Crime and is a judge on Britain’s Got Talent. But his real fan following is children, with his fantabulous books and characters including Billionaire Boy, Awful Auntie, and The Midnight Gang. Walliams has been writing for children for almost ten years now and his books are wildly popular. So much so, that in 2014, The Guardian reported that he had overtaken J.K. Rowling and Michael Morpurgo “to become one of the most-read authors” in UK schools. He has a massive fan following in India, and Harper Hindi has acquired the rights to publish him in the Indian language. “It’s a real thrill to think that children over the world read my stories. I am delighted,” says Walliams.
Some of Walliams’ stories are stuffed with bogies, farts, drools, and snot – all of which have children laugh non-stop. It may sound gross, but Walliams’ writing is exuberant and cheerful, full of rhythm and prose, made-up words, and delightful use of unusual words. And children really enjoy this word play. “I like my books to be as fun as possible,” asserts Walliams. “If you have been writing for a long time, I feel like it’s interesting to have something different.”
At the same time, his books delve into the fragile relationship between adults and children. “I try to think back to my childhood,” Walliams says. “The feelings I had. It’s not without its difficulty. It’s one of the hard things. I often feel adults impose rules that don’t quite adhere to themselves. I try to reflect that in the books as much as possible.” As one kid in The Boy in the Dress tells an adult, “Come off it… we may be kids but we’re not stupid.”
A common thread
Walliams does write about spoilt brats and their tenuous or long-suffering parents, but he also portrays children who are sensitive, funny, and kind. For instance, you can’t help but empathise with Billionaire Boy’s Joe Spud, who has everything but friends; and your heart goes out for the patients stuck in the children’s ward in The Midnight Gang, and you end up egging them on as they get up to some serious midnight mischief. In fact, kindness and sensitivity seem to be the bedrock of many of his stories.
Like in his gorgeous book, The Boy in the Dress. It’s the story of 12-year-old Dennis who feels different – “his thoughts were full of colour and poetry, though his life could be very boring.” And to liven it up, he wants one thing the most, to wear a dress. A heart-warming book that challenges notions of identity, labels, and gender stereotypes, it is a timeless masterpiece about being different, and how everyone feels different in one way or another. Walliams says that when the book released in 2008, it was well-reviewed but people were a little tentative in buying it for their children. “They were perhaps worried about the theme,” he shares. “Ten years later, attitudes are quite different. Now we have a day called World Book Day, where children come to school dressed as a character from their favourite book,” he says. “Many come as the boy in a dress. It is really quite amazing. It’s much more acceptable, which is a good thing.”
While Walliams’ books are set in the real world – a home, a school, a hospital – but then from there, anything can happen. Like Hubert, a ravenous baby who keeps eating and eating until he becomes as big as King Kong. “It’s very fun creating a story like that, anything can happen. That’s a great place to be in,” chuckles Walliams. In some ways, these exaggerated characters and narratives make it easier for children to reflect on hard truths. Like a girl who watches so much television that she just fuses on to the sofa. “Hopefully it’s funny,” says Walliams. “In a small way, it makes children think about their own lives. Maybe what are the consequences – like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where the bad children ate too much or were rude to people.”
In a fragmented society, Walliams’ books are refreshing, more so because in some ways the writing is very conscious of privilege. “I feel very fortunate in my life, I have had many opportunities,” says the author. “I was mindful or aware of what was going on in other people’s house. Children can be quite selfish, they are wrapped up in their worlds, I just want them to be aware of other people. It’s just my world view.”
David Walliams answers questions from young readers
What made you start writing books for children?
Sachit Anand, 9
I produced this live show [Little Britain], it was meant for adults, but children liked it. It made me wonder if children would react to the same sense of humour. And then I got the idea of this story – of what would happen to a boy in a dress.
How did you get the idea of writing about the world’s worst children? Do you really know any children like the ones in the book?
Miraya Saigal, 11
Most of my books come from pretty much my imagination, mostly times I can remember from when I was a child. I create it out of my mind. It’s all about ideas really. Keep your eyes and ears open, you never know when a good idea may come along.
Why do you want to make people laugh? Are you funny in real life all the time?
Reyansh Airan, 10
I wanted to make people happy, and I realised all you need to do is make people laugh. As comedians, we have a need to make people happy. I don’t know why!
It’s really tough going in the world, isn’t it? I am quite serious about what I am doing. I take my work very seriously. I take being a father too seriously. Being funny all the times can be tiring. I prefer not to be funny all the time, it can be a bit boring.
Raj, the Indian news agent
Where I live in London, there’s a newsagent shop called Raj’s News. He’s quite a lot like Raj – always jolly, fun to spend time with, and has a messy shop. I visited him when I was writing the character of Raj in the first book. He wasn’t a parent or a teacher, he was a friend to the kid. For many people in the UK, stopping by the news agent is a bit of a routine. As a child, I’d pop in to buy comics when I had a tiny bit of money to spend. It was a happy time. He’s my lucky mascot really.
David Walliams’ favourite childhood authors
Roald Dahl – he got me into reading, when I was a kid. I loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
John Whyndam – for spooky sci-fi stories, including The Midwitch Cuckoos.
Dr. Seuss – when I was young, my parents read them to me, I loved those books. His work is so personal and unusual.
The World’s Worst Children 2, HarperCollins India is priced at Rs 599.