I’d spent a night at my younger son’s house in Brighton – as I often do – because I’d reviewed a show in nearby Shoreham the previous evening. After a hearty cooked breakfast (thanks, Felix) I collected my belongings and walked out of the front door en route to my car. By then – it was a Saturday – he and his eight year old daughter were outside in the sunshine, cleaning his van. As they wiped and sloshed, they were listening to a story on his phone. I stopped to say goodbye to them and immediately got caught up in the funniest thing I’ve heard for ages: a stroppy but musically inclined dog is very cross and amazed to discover that there’s a musical called Cats but that there isn’t one for, or about, dogs. So he assembles his canine friends (much bottom sniffing) and together they trace the composer and force him to write them one, along with much more gentle sending up of show business. “What on earth is it?” I asked my son. “It’s The World’s Worst Pets by David Walliams and that’s him doing all the voices too” he said.
I walked to my car, still chuckling, and wanting more. As soon as I got home to London I ordered the book which was published in 2022. It’s a set of surreally wacky short stories of which the one I sampled in Brighton is just one. We also meet, among other creatures, a pet gold fish which grows huge and is really a shark or piranha, a constrictor snake which manages to win a prize at a dog show and a lovely two-dad family who find an ingenious way of showing their child that a grizzly bear is not an ideal pet. Then there’s a story about a budgerigar in which all the characters are named after Dickens characters and another in which an abused magician’s rabbit, Houdini, shows he’s much more than a prop. And word-play jokes abound. The abusive conjurer is called the Great Fiasco
Visually, these stories are quite something too because Walliams, his designer and his illustrator (Adam Stower) play about with silly, unlikely or dramatic fonts. And the illustrations which frequent every page are a delight too. On balance though – and I don’t say this very often – I think the recorded version is even more fun than the written one because Walliams is such an accomplished actor. I’ve seen several stage dramatisations of Walliams’s work: Mr Stink and The Midnight Gang, for instance, but had never read/listened to him before.
At least three people I have mentioned this discovery too have told me that they’ve heard that Walliams is a second rate writer and not really very good for children. What? As always, I suspect that such critics haven’t actually read any of his books. Second, I’m passionately in favour of children reading anything – anything at all – which they enjoy because that’s what will develop them into Real Readers just as Enid Blyton did for me.
Third, he writes beautifully anyway so what’s the fuss about? It’s witty, intelligent stuff which makes children (and their parents and grandparents) laugh and that can’t possibly be bad. I reckon that, like all good writers, he does a lot to extend verbal fluency subliminally too with phrases such as “shattered the illusion” and “specialises in extortion”.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Cranes Flying South by N.Karazin.