A fashion-loving boy goes to school disguised as a girl in David Walliams’s first novel, The Boy in the Dress, illustrated by Quentin Blake, which Razorbill released this week. Living with his depressed father and bully of a brother in a household where “no hugging” is the rule, lonely Dennis’s bold move gains him the respect of his family, friends, and soccer teammates. Originally published by HarperCollins U.K. in 2008, the book marks a new career path for Walliams, well known in England as co-creator (with Matt Lucas) and costar of the award-winning TV sketch comedy show, Little Britain.
Did he find writing children’s fiction a very different challenge than writing comedy for adults? “Yes, I’d say so,” he responds. “It was a challenge to write this story in a way that didn’t alienate and confuse a child, which is why I never used the word ‘transvestite’ in the novel. I wanted the experience to be more personal to Dennis in a way. Dealing with a big topic in a simple and straightforward way was much harder than I thought it would be. Writing a story about a dog that runs away from home would have been easier—and more in the realm of a traditional children’s story.”
The plot was—very remotely—rooted in Walliams’s own childhood. Though he never wore a dress to school, his sister was a creative fashion adviser at home. “When I was three or so and she was about five, she loved dressing me up in a bridesmaid dress and fur hat,” he explains. “We have some funny pictures of that and I had this idea for a what-if scenario: what would happen if a boy went to school dressed as a girl? How would others respond? And I started thinking it might make an interesting book for kids.”
Ben Schrank, Razorbill’s president and publisher, who acquired The Boy in the Dress, felt the book “gives kids a broad message about accepting others and allowing for experimenting.” He found it “funny and poignant and charming,” saying that “it cried out for U.S. publication. I think the rhythm of David’s novel is in the tradition of Roald Dahl—and not just because of Quentin Blake’s illustrations. Since Penguin publishes many of Dahl’s books, we felt this was a good home for this novel.”
Walliams, whose novel was shortlisted for Britain’s 2008 Roald Dahl Funny Prize, has long admired the late author. “I grew up loving his books,” he says. “As a writer, I’d say if I’ve taken anything from Roald Dahl it is his directness and economy of writing. And I suppose we both share some dark humor as well. He defines his characters so brilliantly in an economic way and I suppose I’m trying to do that too.”
A young Walliams (l.)
with his sister.
“Brilliant” is also the word Walliams uses to describe Blake’s illustrations for The Boy in the Dress. “I was totally overwhelmed when I saw the art,” he says. “He is such an instinctive artist whom I knew I could trust, and such a lovely, gentle man. He has a brilliant way of making Dennis seem like everyman, a character that children can identify with. I pinch myself to think Blake has illustrated my books.”
Blake also created the illustrations for Walliams’s second novel, Mr. Stink, which Razorbill will release in September 2010; it tells the story of a girl who befriends a tramp and brings him home. The author is now writing a third children’s book and “thinking about the fourth.” He says, “I’d like to do one a year actually. I really enjoy writing for kids. I’m used to writing sketches, but this is so different. In novels, you need to take the characters on an emotional journey, in order to reward the reader.”
In addition to his books and ongoing contributions to Little Britain, Walliams has other creative endeavors in the works. The actor is currently filming Dinner for Schmucks, a Paramount comedy scheduled for 2010 release, which also stars Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd, and Zach Galifianakis. And he is exploring the possibility of adapting The Boy in the Dress and Mr. Stink for TV. “We’re working on that at the moment,” he notes. “I would be thrilled to see these books as television films.”
The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams, illus. by Quentin Blake. Razorbill, $15.99 ISBN 978-1-59514-299-3