I don’t make a habit of criticising other author’s work. I know how difficult it is to write a novel. I know that the beauty of a book is often in the eye of the beholder and everyone has different tastes. What gives me the right to make a value judgment about a novel? However, every so often, a book comes along which leaves me so riled up I’m afraid I can’t keep from being critical.
I’ve never read any of David Walliam’s kids’ books before. I knew they were incredibly popular – NUMBER ONE bestsellers, according to the cover- and I also knew many of my friends and colleagues in the kids’ book world had reservations about both Walliam’s work and also the increasing popularity of children’s books written by celebrity authors. I’m not going to wade into that argument, but I do think they are voicing legitimate concerns and, if Grandpa’s Great Escape is similar to the rest of Walliams’ work I’d have to say I have huge issues with his lazy and borderline misogynistic portrayal of women, his lazy, cliched, offensive depictions of BAME characters and the slightly snide and sneery way he writes about working class people. Putting these reservations aside for the moment, however, I will attempt to focus on Walliams’ exploration of dementia in this novel.
Dementia is not mentioned by name in Grandpa’s Great Escape but as the novel begins with the line “one day Grandpa began to forget things,” and Walliams goes on to outline how he’s taken to wandering off at night, confusing the past with the present and does not recognise close family members, it’s fair to say Grandpa has developed dementia. The novel’s plot outlines his adventures with his grandson Jack. Swept up in an extended delusion that he’s still living in the days of WW2 when he served his country as a fighter pilot, Grandpa runs away from home, hides out in a spitfire in the Imperial War Museum, is incarcerated in an old people’s home which he mistakes for a Prisoner of War camp, leads a mass break out from the home and eventually steals a spitfire from the Imperial War Museum which he flies away in. The plot is quite frankly absurd, but it is a children’s book and I’m all for wild flights of fancy in literature aimed at both children and adults. The problem here is the tone. Most of the outlandish events are written with such flippancy that the suspension of disbelief disintegrates instantly. Walliams has often been accused of being diet-Dahl but he lacks Dahl’s ability to believe his own magic. The made up stuff feels made up and I doubt it would make it past the discerning imagination of most eight year olds. It is badly written nonsense.
I’d be annoyed if this was all Walliams was offering his readers, but I think Grandpa’s Great Escape is so much worse than a poorly written piece of children’s literature. It’s attempting to address an important issue; presenting a character with dementia to countless young readers who might well have a grandparent or loved one living with the illness. As such, it’s unforgivable. Grandpa’s dementia is like no dementia I’ve ever encountered in almost fifteen years of working in this area. He can’t remember his family, confuses times and dates, forgets things and yet manages to mastermind elaborate escape plans, fly a spitfire plane, enter into complicated conversations and at all times remain fastidiously and neatly dressed in full army regalia. It’s quite clear from this portrayal that Walliams has done no research at all into how dementia would actually impact an elderly man or what effect the condition might have on his young grandson. Furthermore, the depiction of the residential care facility Grandpa’s moved into is terrifying. He’s drugged, physically abused by carers and isolated from his family. If I were reading this novel, as a young person whose grandpa had dementia, I’d be both terrified by the possibility he might be incarcerated in a Colditz-style care home and also full of the false hope that he might make a miraculous recovery from his illness.
At best this book is badly written. At worst it’s downright harmful and instils a false narrative about dementia. I wish all those children, (or perhaps parents), who’ve made it a NUMBER ONE bestseller had instead picked up one of the amazing books for kids I’ve previously highlighted on the blog.
Grandpa’s Great Escape was published by Harper Collins in 2015