David Walliams’ colossal sales figures are the stuff of dreams for most kids’ authors; he has just hit his 100th consecutive week as the UK’s top‑selling children’s writer. So, what is the secret of his success? Is it the power of celebrity – or is he simply a brilliant author?
Well, fame has certainly helped. Well known for his work with Matt Lucas on the sketch show Little Britain, Walliams had already established himself as a familiar funny face and a writer with a turn for grotesque humour when his first book for children was published by HarperCollins in 2008. The Boy in the Dress was deeply indebted (as Walliams acknowledges) to Roald Dahl; it also benefited from the involvement of Quentin Blake, the most celebrated of Dahl’s illustrators. It struck an unlikely balance between gross-out humour of the squelchiest kind and subtler ideas of identity and courage; it starred a neglected, put-upon child hero; and it handled the idea of cross-dressing with a humorous lightness of touch. While the Sunday Times’ Nicolette Jones commented gently that Walliams’ writing was “not the finest”, Philip Ardagh praised its “genuine child-appeal”. Book-buying parents, however, were evidently unsure about the theme of transvestism for younger readers.
His second book, Mr Stink, featured a pungent tramp with a tragic history, a bullied girl and a send-up of political ambition, interwoven with waves of typographic stench. By book three, Quentin Blake had been replaced by illustrator Tony Ross, of Little Princess fame, and the balance began to tip towards the gross-out (Billionaire Boy’s wealth is generated by the invention of a new kind of toilet paper; Ratburger’s title speaks for itself). Walliams’ gleeful, drawn-out obsession with burps, farts, snot, smells and every flavour of scatological humour began to win over his young readership in droves. According to Charlotte Eyre of the Bookseller: “Walliams had an advantage when entering the children’s market because of his fame, but he soon built up a core base of true fans … and his commitment to producing several books a year ensures a steady stream of new material for them. They don’t have time to lose interest.”
The BBC’s adaptation of Gangsta Granny. Photograph: Gary Moyes/BBC
His brand, combining reassuring recognisability and sure-fire child appeal, has been bolstered since 2012 by Christmas TV adaptations; his heavy hardbacks are now a ubiquitous presence in supermarkets, presenting a risk-free choice for parents and gift-buyers short of time, disposable income or bookshops to browse. Book seven, Awful Auntie, sold half a million UK copies in 2014, the year of its publication; in the same year, Walliams earned £7m from book sales. He has now published four picture books, too, and shows no sign of slowing down.
From the perspective of a children’s-book maven, his dominance is slightly dispiriting. The heartwarming playfulness of his debut seems to have dissipated long ago in a cloud of “Oh, publish”, his status as a surreal champion of the outsider lessened by his metamorphosis into a sales phenomenon. Characters such as the omnipresent Raj, the shopkeeper obsessed with flogging gone-off sweets at inflated prices, are enormously popular with children, but feel more stereotypical with every repetition; the cast of The Midnight Gang are sketchily drawn, no longer the people “in the real world, with real emotions”, that Walliams set out to create. He is justly celebrated for enchanting reluctant readers, especially boys – but it is hard not to feel now that they would benefit from more matter with fewer fart jokes.