The ‘David Walliams Phenomenon’

Image credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

by Eliza Gill

If I could recite a list of celebs-turned-children’s-authors, we would be here all day. 

From actress Julianne Moore, to footballer Frank Lampard, there are no limits as to who can give it a go. But what are the downfalls of this? And is it always ethical?

In 2008, David Walliams’ first children’s book The Boy in the Dress was published. It sold a million copies. In 2020, he single handedly sold a third of the top 50 children’s books of the year. He has hurtled on a journey of selling £100 million worth of children’s books. His journey is every children’s author’s dream. But, with Nicolette Jones commenting that his writing is “not the finest”, it brings into question whether his books sell because of his talent, or because of his name. It is a hotly debated topic. 

Yet, his success kick-started what has been coined the ‘David Walliams Phenomenon’. Celebrities, across a range of industries, have been trying their hand at writing since his colossal success. With big names on the covers, celeb books naturally began to dominate the market. Like Madonna’s children’s book, The English Roses, some flop and fizzle out. But others, like Marcus Rashford, have found great success. 

Making up 16% of the volume of the top 100 children’s authors, it is easy to see why career-writers would be frustrated. They nurture their books from rough first draft to shiny, published product, only to be ignored – in favour of a celebrity name. Lockdown only added to this. With children out of school and stuck at home, many turned to books. Of course, the appealing ones have familiar names on the front. 40% of Tesco’s children’s book section was made up of just three authors: Walliams, Tom Fletcher, and Ben Miller. 

What do these authors have in common? They are all the same demographic: white, middle-aged males. A major issue of the ‘David Walliams Phenomenon’ is that it limits the range of voices heard by children. In 2020, it was reported that 93% of children’s books were written by white people. This figure is vastly problematic. Melissa Abraham, a children’s author of Ghanaian heritage, has lost count of how many times she has been rejected by publishers. She hopes to publish a book with an African-Caribbean girl as the protagonist. Children of minorities should have access to books that feature children they can relate to, but the demographic of celebrity authors inhibits this. Yet, there is hope. Schemes such as All Stories and WriteNow have been launched. They aim to tackle the issue of diversity, or lack of, in publishing by providing competitions and workshops for underrepresented people.

Children’s books should nurture minds and make faces smile. Filled with vomit-humour and stinky characters, Walliams’ books do achieve this. But, like all industries, there is room for improvement. There is much to gain from diversifying the voices children hear.