Disability in children’s books revisited Part I – are disabled characters finally entering mainstream children’s literature?

In 2012, I wrote a blog discussing the absence of disability in contemporary children’s fiction. At the time, I observed that disability had been all but forgotten by most mainstream authors. Whilst inclusivity in children’s literature is widely regarded as important, especially in representing minority groups, disability seemed to have fallen by the wayside. Happily, it appears things are changing. Last week, I read two children’s novels that gave me cause for hope. Perhaps disabled characters are, at last, taking centre stage for young readers.

A tale of two Davids!

‘Bad Dad’ by David Walliams and The Taylor Turbochaser’ by David Baddiel are both recent titles from HarperCollins Children’s Books. Published in 2017 and 2019 respectively both stories place disabled characters at the heart of the narrative. I found it massively encouraging that two celebrity bestselling children’s authors chose such protagonists and thought it worthwhile to review them both over my next two blogs. There may well be other children’s books out there which also boast disabled heroes or heroines, but these two in particular caught my eye.

‘Bad Dad’ by David Walliams HarperCollins Children’s Books 2017

Walliams writes like Roald Dahl might, had he drunk several hundred cups of coffee! His high-octane tale of an amputee, former banger racer, turned getaway driver had me gripped throughout. The book, which roars along at a thrilling pace, is something of a cross between ‘Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo’, ‘The Italian Job’ and ‘Danny the Champion of the World’ with a flourish of Shakespearean cross-dressing thrown in for good measure!

As well as being highly entertaining, ‘Bad Dad’ confronts some difficult themes. Gilbert (the banger racing Dad) is hero-worshipped by his son Frank. But tragedy strikes when Gilbert suffers a devastating life-changing accident on the racetrack in his beloved mini, Queenie. As a result of the crash, Gilbert is rushed to hospital where the doctors amputate his right leg, replacing it with a wooden prosthesis.

Numerous capers and misadventures!

Gilbert’s decline after the accident is heart wrenching. He loses his job, his income, his self-esteem, even his wife. He and his son can only watch as the debts mount and their household empties thanks to wave after wave of stern-faced bailiffs. As things become increasingly desperate, Gilbert is forced to make difficult and dangerous choices which ultimately put him on the wrong side of the law.

Gilbert’s devotion to his son and the shame he feels in thinking he has let Frank down are powerful drivers (if you pardon the pun!). If only he knew that Frank cares for nothing but his Dad. “All I ever wanted, all I ever needed, was you. My dad.” says Frank to Gilbert at the end of the story.Thankfully, father and son make a strong team and despite numerous capers and misadventures, their love for one another pulls them through.   

Outrageous yet utterly believable characters

Comedy comes naturally to Walliams and the characters he creates are at once outrageous yet utterly believable. Serious issues are therefore accompanied with a healthy dollop of rollicking slapstick and toilet humour. Frank’s hopeless-in-love, poetry-crazed great Auntie Flip is a particular favourite, while the ominous Mr Big and his two cronies Fingers and Thumbs make excellent villains.

Gilbert’s leg (or lack thereof!) is central to the story yet it does not weigh the narrative down in any way. On the contrary, his disability is as much a source of humour and of practical use than anything else. Is it not this false limb that saves the dynamic father and son duo when they find themselves stuck down a wishing well?! And is it not the same wooden peg that knocks the evil kingpin, Mr Big unconscious and ultimately traps his fearsome gang, leaving them to their fate?!  

A hugely entertaining story in its own right

Whilst disability is addressed, it does not dominate the tale. ‘Bad Dad’ is a hugely entertaining story in its own right. Disability by no means defines this book. On the contrary, ‘Bad Dad’ highlights other equally important values as well and encouraging disability awareness. Wealth and material possessions do not necessarily lead to happiness as shown by Gilbert’s bejewelled, champagne swilling ex-wife Rita. Companionship and friendship trump all as Frank and his Dad can attest and, as far as great Auntie Flip and Reverend Judith are concerned, you’re never too old to fall in love!

‘Bad Dad’ is fast, funny and heart-warming in equal measure. Whilst one of its heroes is disabled, it is not a book about disability. It is as much a testament to friendship, hope and the bond between father and son than anything else and I thoroughly recommend it!

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