The story of dreadful Aunt Alberta is a perfect marriage of text and pictures from 'the fastest‑growing children's author in the UK'
In Awful Auntie, David Walliams, with more than a little help from illustrator Tony Ross, has created his best book to date.
Described as "currently the fastest-growing children's author in the UK" – God knows what they feed him on – comedian Walliams (pictured) has sold more than 4m books in Britain alone. There are two things that all of his children's books have in common: they're funny, and they feature the character Raj the newsagent.
From the outset, Walliams has suffered from comparisons to Roald Dahl – no one can really do what Dahl did, not least because he was so odd. To say something is Dahlesque is often shorthand for "includes wacky humour in a story where adults are horrid and cruelty and nastiness abound". Unless deliberately attempting a Dahl pastiche, however, all these elements can be approached very differently.
Comparing Walliams to Dahl will upset the Dahl purists and give Walliams-bashers the opportunity to put the boot in. Early on, Walliams may have been packaged like Dahl – he even shares illustrators – but, as his books have progressed, a very clear style has become apparent.
Another criticism of Walliams is that he has been successful in publishing because he is a celebrity. This undoubtedly played an important part at the outset, but it's worth remembering that not only has Walliams been shortlisted for the Roald Dahl funny prize three times – and its judges include fellow authors – but also there are a whole host of young readers who have never even heard of Little Britain and aren't necessarily watching the BBC sitcom Big School. You don't sell that many books if your readers don't love reading them.
And so to his latest, the story of Stella, whose parents, Lord and Lady Saxby, were killed in a car crash, and of her dreadful Aunt Alberta, who is plotting to trick her out of her inheritance. The three other main players are Wagner (Alberta's Great Bavarian Mountain Owl), Soot (a ghostly chimney sweep) and Gibbon (the ancient butler).
Gibbon is in his own little world throughout the book, serving up slippers as buttered crumpets, shaking hands with a pot plant he refers to as "Major", and talking into a lampshade as though it is a telephone.
As for Alberta, she really is an awful auntie; an awful person, in fact. During the war, she apparently chose to fight on the German side simply because she preferred their uniforms, especially the spiked helmets. She's not only a murderer but a torturer and, for a lover of owls, she has rather a lot of stuffed ones in cases …
My favourite character, though, is undoubtedly Wagner, her owl. Ross's illustration of Wagner and Alberta, tucked up in bed next to each other in stripy pyjamas like Morecambe and Wise, still makes me grin.
Walliams does love a good list and there are plenty here – a few too many, I'd suggest – from the topsy-turvy way Gibbon conducts his duties to Alberta's versions of fairytales ("The princess kisses the frog and contracts a waterborne disease that makes her bottom explode") and tricks favoured by the British Society of Poltergeists, the majority brought vividly to life by Ross's illustrations.
At one stage, Walliams writes: "Now I know what you are thinking: why haven't there been any illustrations in this chapter? The pictures are the best bit." Awful Auntie really is a wonderful marriage of text and pictures, with Ross adding an extra dimension to Walliams's genuinely funny, exciting and, even moving, story.
There are a few niggles. A footnote, for example, instructs that letters of complaint about Aunt Alberta's appalling spelling be sent not to the author but to "Ms Alberta Saxby, Saxby Hall, nr Little Saxby, England." Why, when Aunt Alberta doesn't live there at the time the story is being told? Even the nuttiest tale needs internal logic.
My biggest gripe is lying to the reader, though. At the outset, we are introduced to the characters, one of whom is Detective Strauss. The caption states: "Detective Strauss is a policeman." Detective Strauss is not a policeman. If you can't believe the omnipotent narrator, who can you believe?
But let's not poop on the parade. Walliams and Ross have created something fun, feelgood and very, very silly. Awful Auntie is a hoot.
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