Awful Auntie – David Walliams (2014) – A Kid-Lit Review

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awfulauntie

It’s been a couple of years since I read David Walliams’ “The Demon Dentist” and in that time his reputation as a writer (and his book sales) have continued to soar.  Just the other week the Duchess Of Cornwall’s Bookshelves Project celebrated her 70th birthday with a list of the UK’s favourite children’s books.  It’s quite a wide-ranging list and Walliams has two titles on it- neither of which I’ve read so I’ve obviously got more treats in store.

I thought “Demon Dentist” was “up there with the best of Dahl” and had everything that a children’s book should have. “Awful Auntie” was his next publication so it might be hoped he’d pushed the quality boundaries further.  He hasn’t really and if “DD” is up with the best of Dahl (that’s “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory”, “The Witches” and “Matilda”) then this is nestling in with the mid-range of “The Twits” and “George’s Marvelous Medicine”.  I feel these are appropriate comparisons as they both share a one-dimensional overly sadistic undertone which stops this feeling as well rounded as its predecessor.

Set in the dilapidated Saxby Hall in 1933 the twelve year old main character Stella awakes to find her life has changed.  Her parents are no longer around and she is being held captive by the monstrous Aunt Alberta, a character without even the slightest drop of humanity who has as a side-kick a giant owl.  Agatha wants to claim the Hall as her own and is prepared to murder all around her to get it.  Stella has to use the Hall’s past to attempt to thwart her Aunt’s plans.  Such misery heaped on Stella becomes disturbing more than funny.  Walliams attempts to lighten the atmosphere by having her step temporarily away from life-threatening situations to make some mundane comments to her captor seems jarring to adult readers but most children will no doubt lap this up.  I think there’s also an over-reliance on lists to bring out the humour (Walliams does do this well as did Dahl) as here it does not add much to the flow of the novel, which highlights that the plot is sparser this time around.  The Tony Ross illustrations are great fun and would add much to the enjoyment, especially the plans and maps.

Children will relish guessing the twists in the plots.  He uses a small cast here and at least one character (Gibbons the ancient butler) is under-used.  There’s actually a complaint letter at the back of the book from recurring character, shop-owner Raj, who is moaning about his non-appearance in the book because of its 1930s setting and I thought that was written with more sparkle than a chunk of the preceding 400 pages.  “Awful Auntie” did fall a little short of my high expectations.  I feel that “Demon Dentist” is a better balanced book and has the feel of a lasting children’s classic whilst this over-emphasised dark slapstick to cover up Aunt Agatha’s evil machinations.  I expect Walliams to be outrageous but I think he over-eggs it here and loses something in the process. Kids, however, are a different breed and the continuing popularity of things like the film “Home Alone” suggest that this kind of slapstick-under-peril is perennially popular and the 1451 (at time of writing) 5 star reviews on Amazon would suggest I might be a little out of touch here but I just think he’s done and will do better.

threestars

Awful Auntie was published by Harper Collins in 2014

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Demon Dentist – David Walliams (2013) – A Kid-Lit Review

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Despite this being his ninth book (including two for younger readers) I hadn’t actually read anything by this celebrity writer, comedian, actor, TV judge, cross-channel swimmer etc. etc., so seeing this on the library shelves I thought I’d give it a go. This book won Children’s Book Of The Year at the National Book Awards so comes with a good pedigree. I must admit it wasn’t the best choice of book to read on the day that I had a dental appointment!

It is, as I suspected it might be, a real riot and shows Walliams as the natural successor to Roald Dahl. Alfie lives with and cares for his wheelchair-bound Dad who has lung problems after years spent working down the mines. Twelve year old Alfie has neglected his teeth because of a bad experience with a previous dentist and now they are in a bad way. A new Dentist comes to his school assembly to give a talk and it seems as if something untoward is going on. The Tooth Fairy seems to have been replaced by something leaving nasty surprises under children’s pillows. Alfie is forced into the dentist’s surgery where his encounter with the devilish Miss Root confirms his worst fears. Throw in a tenacious social worker, a less than hygienic sweet shop owner and a girl friend who Alfie insists is just a friend and you have a well-crafted laugh out loud tale. I particularly enjoyed the section when coffee-flavoured Revels play their part in the general mayhem. The hero is likeable and the situations he faces unexpected. There’s pathos amidst the comedy and Walliams has produced a little corker of a children’s book. I had imagined a little less craft and a little more obsession with bodily functions (a disappointing major pre-occupation in popular children’s lit. it seems) but the humour is broader than that. Walliams gets the balance right and the end result is very enjoyable. I actually think that this is up there with the best of Dahl and that Walliams is likely to be revered as an author by children long after he has stopped being a judge on “Britain’s Got Talent.”

And even better news- I didn’t need anything doing at the dentist…………!

fourstars

Demon Dentist was published in 2013 in the UK by Harper Collins