Growing up, I shared a bedroom with three sisters. It meant ‘hanging out in my room’ was never really an option. Instead, I found more creative places to call my own: under the table in the dining room; on the attic stairs with my legs dangling in the air and the next step up playing the part of a little desk; under my mum’s sewing machine when the armchair was in front of it, hiding me from view. Occasionally, when there was sunshine, the hammock in the garden would add to my list. I discovered some of the most incredible worlds in these places. It was beneath the table that I read Tolkien for the first time, pretending I was sitting in Erebor. On the hammock outside, I listened to two little creatures arguing whether or not Katy did it. And when I climbed the attic stairs, I was really climbing the Faraway Tree with Moon-Face and Silky and Saucepan Man. But when the books came to an end and I fell into withdrawal, I turned to old friends. I turned to Roald Dahl.
Roald Dahl has been a lifelong love of mine. One of my fondest memories is sitting in bed one night, when my sisters and parents were downstairs, with the covers over my head and a torch shining on the pages of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Whenever someone would come upstairs to check on me, I would push the book beneath the bed and pretend to be fast asleep. I never got caught, but I’m pretty sure they all knew what it was I was really up to. Even now, two decades later, reading Dahl feels like stepping out of some incredibly vivid dream and returning to reality. Between Dahl’s words and Blake’s illustrations, it felt like coming home. I never thought I’d ever have that feeling with another author…
…until I discovered David Walliams.
I say ‘discovered’, but I’ve always known who he was. As someone who had never been a fan of sketch shows, especially the kind of humour used in Little Britain, I’d just never paid much attention to him. About ten years ago, I heard he’d forayed into writing for children. It was nothing new. What celebrity doesn’t have a dalliance with writing nowadays? I didn’t bat an eyelid. Last year I bumped into him at the British Film Institute. He was such a lovely guy, but soon I went back to [not caring] about him. It wasn’t until I was walking through Tesco last month, in the midst of doing the weekly grocery shop, that I really paid attention.
There, on the shelf, was a copy of The Ice Monster.
It was the illustrations that caught my eye first. So familiar and comforting in their Blake-like style. The setting? London. My home, sweet home. The Natural History Museum, in fact. One of my favourite places in the entire city! And so, I read the blurb:
When Elsie, an orphan on the streets of Victorian London, hears about the mysterious Ice Monster – a woolly mammoth found at the North Pole – she’s determined to discover more…
A chance encounter brings Elsie face to face with the creature, and sparks the adventure of a lifetime – from London to the heart of the Arctic!
Heroes come in all different shapes and sizes in David Walliams’ biggest and most epic adventure yet!
I put it in the shopping cart and checked it out with the groceries without a second thought.
The plot was wild and imaginative, yet educational (although historically inaccurate), while still being somehow beautifully familiar. Perhaps it was that opening chapter, setting up Elsie’s character in an orphanage that was so horrible it felt like I was reading The Twitsor that infamous introduction of the Trunchbull in Matilda. Either way, it was perfect from that first page.
The characters were so memorable. Even without illustrations beside them, they were so vivid. Easy to see. Easy to fall into place beside. And their names! Dotty, the ditsy cleaner at the Natural History Museum. Titch, her retired-soldier, the love of her life. Lady Buckshot, the evil huntress who wants nothing more than to mount heads on her wall. And their introductions – an entire chapter reminiscent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, making you instantaneously fall in love with every single one of them. And to have Queen Victoria and her attendant, Abdul Karim, as characters? Inspired!
But my favourite part, without doubt, was Walliams’ use of British colloquialisms, something so rare in books nowadays. They weren’t only witty and entertaining, but made me feel right at home from the very second I giggled over the first one.
I may be too big to sit beneath the table now. We may not have the hammock in the garden anymore for me to swing on. But I still have the armchair in the bedroom I no longer share with three sisters. As I curled up to read, I felt like I had stepped out a dream and straight back into my childhood. I think it’s safe to say that Walliams, like Dahl before him, is nothing short of incredible!