A wonderful mixture of silliness and seriousness
A book by its concept
The Boy in the Dress is David Walliams’ first book for children. Like most, I know Walliams mostly as an actor, comedian and the judge from Britain’s Got Talent who loves all the daft acts. I wasn’t sure how much his book deal came from genuine talent and how much came from the publishers’ desire to put a famous name on a book cover. My younger brother, however, really enjoyed Walliams’ books; he has a little space on the shelf dedicated to all of his publications.
I was especially intrigued by The Boy in the Dress. It’s the story of Denis, twelve-year-old, football enthusiast, who comes to school one day in a dress after encouragement from his new friend, the fashion-loving Lisa.
Children’s ideas of gender are somewhat separated at that age. My brother, for example, refuses to pick up a Jacqueline Wilson book because he thinks they are strictly for girls. Knowing the context of the way my brother experiences gender, I wanted to know the message The Boy in the Dress presents and how it tackles its themes for young readers.
A book by its cover
Quentin Blake returns to illustrate the cover and the pictures inside. He has a distinctive style and whenever I see it I’m always reminded of the Roald Dahl books from my primary school library. I like that he decided to show Denis’s love of football on the cover – we already have an attention-grabbing title and so it’s nice to immediately see a little more about who exactly this boy is.
Unfortunately, my brother does not share my appreciation for lovely book covers. His second favourite thing to do with books (the first being to read them, of course!) is to throw them at people. This tactic is usually employed when he’s trying to avoid going to bed. Alternatively, he’ll chuck them at me when I walk past his room too loudly. He dog-ears his books and he swings them by a couple of pages when he’s on the move.
If you haven’t gathered, this book was in a bit of a state by the time I got hold of it.
A book by its content
I am about ten years above the intended market for this book, but it made me smile all the same. It’s a cute little easy-to-read story, but its themes make it more complex. Denis’s life at home isn’t great – his mum isn’t around anymore, his older brother isn’t too nice to him and his dad is away a lot, driving lorries and feeling down. But we also see some wonderfully larger than life characters, like Raj who has a unique approach to selling items in his shop, Darvesh’s mum who goes to all lengths to support her son’s football team and Miss Windsor who sometimes bursts into passages of French.
Over the story, Denis has conversations about what certain items of clothing mean to his friends. Fourteen-year-old Lisa talks about the strictness of the school uniform code, while Darvesh, Denis’s best friend, explains what it means to wear something different to everyone else because of a religion which, in Darvesh’s case, is Sikhism. This was a brilliant way to show that different people encounter different experiences even when thinking about the same topic, this time the clothes they wear.
I did think the story was simplified and sugar-coated to an extent. The ending is quickly wrapped together, all characters seeming to miraculously change their attitudes so the story ends happily. This took away from the characters’ ability to feel real. I know it’s a children’s book so the story can’t become too complex, but I’m sure there would have been a way to make the ending feel a little more realistic.
Additionally, the ending seemed to contradict the overall message of the book. Without spoiling anything, there was one moment near the end concerning Denis’s headteacher that nearly unwound everything Walliams had been building up to and I don’t think it was necessary.
A book by its writing
The writing is, unfortunately, what brings down the overall standard for me. I really wasn’t sure what age range the book was intended for. It reads simply and this makes the characters seem very young, about the same age as my brother himself so nine or ten. However, the characters are in fact about twelve to fourteen years old. A more mature writing style would have been appropriate, I think. It really is quite disorienting to read characters who feel like some of my brother’s friends even though they are supposed to be in secondary school.
There were also moments in the book where Walliams employed the old telling instead of showing. These moments were definitely weaker and bring the reader out of the story. This time, however, I’m willing to give Walliams the benefit of the doubt. As a debut novel from a celebrity author, there will inevitably be some weak writing in place. From what I can tell from helping with my brother’s bedtime reading, his writing steadily improves with every book.
A book by its impact
Anything to get children to think a little more critically about the world we live in is brilliant in my books. I can see this book being a little piece that helps the kids who do in fact want to wear a dress to school, despite that not being what others might think would be the ‘correct’ or ‘normal’ thing to do. We need books like this aimed at children especially. They’re generally open-minded beings and it’s great to present things like boys wearing dresses without judgement.
I also liked the diverse set of characters: there’s Denis in his dress, Darvesh and his mum who are both Sikhs and Mac Cribbins who has a problem with his eating. It was great that Walliams didn’t just stop with Denis, but made sure that all kinds of different people were included with a pinch of humour (because that’s another thing about this book – you’ll be chuckling to yourself).