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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Demon Dentist by David Walliams, Tony Ross (Illustrator)

Twelve-year-old Alfie hates going to the dentist. His teeth are yellow and brown and he loves sweets. He had an awful experience at the one-and-only dentist in town, Mr. Erstwhile, and has refused to go since then. Erstwhile croaks and a new dentist, Miss Root, shows up at Alfie's school to promote good dental hygiene. Or so it appears. But something is off... she's an odd tooth, saying that she will not give gory details on Erstwhile's death, but then gives the gory details: Erstwhile was found in his surgery room lying in a pool of blood with a dental probe through his heart.

Irony abounds as Miss Root sniffs out Alfie's rotten mouth-full of teeth in the school auditorium like a bloodhound. He gets pegged for an appointment at her office that he is determined to miss. Alfie describes the creepy dentist as, "The pupils in her eyes shone black. On second look, they were blacker than coal. Blacker than oil. Blacker than night. Blacker than the blackest black. In short, they were black." Like a stand-up comedian, the author has great timing that includes some hits and misses. This book needs a "snort-laugh ALERT." If you like silly books with exaggerated characters, then you'll like this comedy.

Alfie teams up with Gabz when he sees Miss Root acting suspicious. She is younger than him and he calls her his "girl friend" which all they adults interpret as his girlfriend. The two sputter in anger every time this happens and I laughed every time as it got more preposterous. Take Raj, the endearing dork of a newsagent, who says to Alfie: "'Your girlfriend?! Ooh...' cooed Raj. 'No, no!' exclaimed Alfie. 'She isn't my girlfriend. Gabz is just a friend who's a girl.' 'Your friendgirl*?'" The author puts an asterisk with a footnote: "*Made-up word ALERT (any letters of complaint to be addressed to Raj.) Move over spoiler alerts.

David Walliams pokes fun at evolving social cultures such as the boy who misses out on all the action at school because he texts 24/7. Or the drama teacher that thinks the social worker, Winnie, driving a moped throughout the school is part of an improv act. Or Winnie, the social worker, that eats and drinks like a piston with no sensitivity or respect to others. Then there is some toilet bowl humor with farting (that is in the top five next to "poop" and "butt" for kids at my school) along with some terrific scary parts, the need for false teeth, and "witchestry*". A snortingly* fun at the beach book. Okay. I would not make team Walliams made-up word list.

When kids at school start receiving gross items like bat wings, an old man's toenail, and an eyeball under their pillows from the tooth fairy, Alfie is sure it is connected with Miss Root. He teams up with Alfie, Raj, and Gabz to solve the mystery. The straightforward plot is easy to follow and Miss Root is a one dimensional villain. I did think Walliams walked a fine line with Winnie or maybe it is the illustrator. Come to think of it, Walliams implies she is black but never says so. Anyway, she's black and dresses in a kaleidoscope of outrageously bright clothes with bangles on her hands and a big bum. This stereotype is somewhat redeemed by Winnie's generous actions at the end, but I was uncomfortable with his descriptions and when she loses her clothes on the fence, I thought it was weird. That seemed unnecessary and a miss on the target audience. Walliams is consistent, however, creating adult characters that are extreme and exaggerated from the police officer to the head principal.

The witch is stereotyped and one dimensional. You've seen her before in many stories. I am reading Jack Zipes, "The Irresistible Fairy Tale," and it is a fascinating look at the evolution of storytelling and fairy tales. Zipes traces fairy tales from pagan societies to Roman Catholicism that "demonized pagan tales, rituals, and customs." Stories that used to have fairies and witches had good and bad ones until the church labeled it witchcraft and they became demonized. His book is very dense and I won't go into it but he shows how the witch in modern Europe and contemporary Western culture evolved into the one-dimensional demonized villain, like the one in this story, to support patriarchal traditions. This book's fairy tale ending follows the happily-ever-after trope and while it follows many traditional conventions, it does depart from some traditions when Gabz rescues Alfie after he fails to rescue her. As Zipes explains, fairy tales are not original but based on "human communication of shared experience" and evolve as societies remember and retell them year-after-year. I wonder what the fairy tale will look like hundreds of years from now and what stereotypes and conventions will have changed.

Demon dentist for me is a combination of slapstick, traditional European fairy tale, and "Struwwelpeter." The latter is a collection of moral stories published in 1845, that show the consequences of bad behaviors or manners often in a violent way. One boy sucks his thumbs and a tailor comes and cuts them off with his scissors. The illustration shows blood dripping from the boy's missing thumbs. Harriet plays with matches and burns herself up. She is a pile of ashes in the illustration with only her red shoes left. But while "Struwwelpeter" is serious in tone (although the cats crying in their hankies suggests otherwise), Walliam's book is not. Oh no. Stamp it with, "Guaranteed to snort laugh." Alfie might lose his teeth because he can't brush, but he gets the last laugh. David Walliams creates exaggerated, preposterous characters that are mostly adults and has great comedic timing with jokes. If you like silly books with a simple plot, then give this one a go.

4 Smileys

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