It is David Walliams’s world, we just live in it. At least that is how it seems to many British parents, trapped in what he might call the Burptastic Snot-sphere of Mr Wallybottom. Walliams’s children’s books, which frame him as the hilarious, heart-warming heir to Roald Dahl, are inescapable: since 2013 he has produced between two and four a year. In 2019 the TV comedian joined a small group of authors – including JK Rowling and Dan Brown – whose writing has earned more than £100m in the UK. In 2022 his publisher, HarperCollins, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, announced that Walliams has sold more than 50 million books worldwide. This July The World’s Worst Monsters, his 38th title, was published.
Why does David Walliams retain such a grip on our children’s imaginations when his own is so impoverished? His 2008 debut, The Boy in the Dress, a story of a cross-dressing lad gaining acceptance from his divorcee father, was elevated by illustrations by Dahl’s former collaborator Quentin Blake. But Walliams’s subsequent output has offered diminishing returns, and the “World’s Worst” series is, well, the worst. Let’s put to one side the dubious stereotyping of Mr Raj the Asian news agent, the Chinese boy Brian Wong “who was never wrong” (but was later deemed to be “wrong” enough to be removed from publication) and the women who are constantly brandishing mops and “bog brushes”. After all, Dahl was a reliable source of unpleasant prejudices, as the row over “updated” editions earlier this year reminded us.
But Dahl’s work has a subversive linguistic energy that cannot be denied. Walliams’s only gifts are for repetition. Characters are scatologically formulaic: Windy Mindy and her lethal “bottom burps”, Terry Tetch, whose “chunder thunder” ends up on his own face. (In The World’s Worst Pets Walliams raises the stakes and introduces a goldfish that can “furp” – “when someone, or something, farts and burps at precisely the same time”.) Original scenarios are rare. When Posy Pooch’s two Tibetan mastiffs conceive, they have 99 puppies, leaving a household of “one hundred and one dogs”. Bertha the Blubberer is a Violet Elizabeth Bott-style screamer, so of course her nemesis is called William. Walliams might be aiming for homage, but the effect is storytelling by ChatGPT.
It is difficult, however, to imagine a large language model AI turning in anything as lazy as Walliams’s prose. He loves onomatopoeia but employs it in a deadeningly literal way: “Peter gulped in fear. Gulp!” When he invents a word – “pongtasmagoric”, for example – he is so pleased with himself he includes an arch footnote flagging it. The rest of the time he is careful not to exert himself. Walliams is happy with “dreaded double history”, so why shouldn’t it be followed by “dreaded worksheets”? When a “damp, limp vegetable” is thrown, why wouldn’t it leave “a damp, green, vegetably mess”? In the fictional theme park of “Loopyland”, the most spectacular attraction is called the “Loop-the-loop Loopy Coaster”. This is the Boaty McBoatface school of writing.
The lack of invention brings with it a lack of emotional impact. As the stories end, children, parents and teachers are punished and taught a lesson, or they continue to rebel; we are asked to swallow a platitude (“all you have to do is believe”) or regurgitate laughter (“HA! HA!”). The outcomes are as interchangeable as they are inconsequential. Dahl turned meanness into an art form, Walliams simply uses it for a punchline.
[See also: The best children’s books for summer 2023]
Easy to read, full of bodily functions, familiar tropes and lavish, lively illustrations, it’s unsurprising that Walliams’s books are popular with children. The reason why they are a phenomenon, though, has little to do with talent and much to do with the market. The UK’s children’s books sector was worth £445.3m in 2022, its biggest year yet – but the money is being made by a select few. As the writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce recently lamented, the “critical discussion” around children’s books has narrowed, with little review space in the mainstream media, no prominent prize, and supermarkets and online retailers presenting time-pressed parents with a very small range of well-known authors.
Walliams’s future is not entirely secure, however: questions over his character linger. In 2018 he hosted a Presidents Club charity auction, a men-only event at which female hospitality staff were reportedly sexually harassed by guests. In 2020 his sketch show Little Britain was dropped by several streaming services due to its use of blackface. In 2022 recordings were leaked of Walliams making offensive remarks about Britain’s Got Talent contestants; he later quit his role as a judge on the programme. Walliams’s phenomenal rise as an author has been driven by a relentless publishing schedule and a Murdoch-backed marketing budget. But the recent trajectory has been downwards: although The World’s Worst Monsters went straight to no 1 in the UK chart, it sold half as many copies in its first week as The World’s Worst Pets did in 2022 – and neither came near Walliams’s pre-pandemic heights. Might his appeal be finally waning?
It is not common practice for authors to thank their publisher’s CEO, but David Walliams likes to name-check Charlie Redmayne of HarperCollins at the beginning of each book. The world’s worst children’s writer knows that bottom burps can only get him so far.
This article was originally published on 27 July 2023.
[See also: The dark heart of Roald Dahl]