I've read each one of David Walliams' novels for children, and this is now probably in my top three (after Boy in the Dress and Billionaire Boy).
Walliams sets his tale (almost) entirely within the confines of a hospital, one with shortages and cut-backs, and the children's equivalent of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
It feels a little like Matilda, which I'm sure the author would be happy to hear, and is just full of heart. He concentrates more on story in this and his last book, and lets his natural humour take the reigns, ditching the over-the-top jokes that made Ratburger and Awful Auntie more forced.
Tom is our protagonist, brought disoriented into Lord Funt Hospital after a nasty bang to the head by a cricket ball at his boarding school. After meeting a naive doctor and s a scary-looking porter, he ends up on the children's ward with a collection of long-term residents, some in plaster, some very ill.
But he soon notices there is something strange going on. The children sneak out from the ward at night, past the controlling and Trunchbull-like Matron. Just where are they going? What are they doing? And what is the... Midnight Gang??
One of the simplest stories Walliams has come up with, it's also one of the more effective. A simple us-vs-them story, much like Matilda, it encompasses some powerful themes.
Tom is the best-characterised of the children, the others in the ward are fairly sketchily drawn, apart from Sally (whose poor health means she is stuck in bed when the others sneak out). Tom hates his school and misses the parents he feels don't love him or want him around. None of the children in fact seem to have family to visit, hence their bonding together as a unit.
They do find a father-figure of sorts though, one who incites prejudice of his own and has his own sad backstory, and gives the reader something to think about on judging by appearances.
The Midnight Gang itself is lovely, an inspired if not altogether unique idea, but it is what it means that is really wonderful - at the heart of the book is the idea of doing things for others, being there for your friends, a message embedded nicely by Walliams throughout the story.
In case anyone is wondering about my old favourite Raj, yes, even Raj has got himself into the story as usual, as a patient who is decidedly not happy with the hospital food! Though the dinner lady Tootsie, could be straight out of a Walliams TV sketch, most amusing scenes.
And the author also manages to get a little dig aimed at Britain's Got Talent in there, mentioning TV talent shows. And a very funny sequence ending up with a Twit-like balloon scene (can't wait to see THAT one aired on Christmas Day, David?!).
It is one of Walliams' longer books, but I think readers will find the short chapter, plentiful Ross illustrations and lots of font changes and text-sparse pages mean it races by. It would also make a good class read in KS2 and KS3 schools, especially with its themes and messages. There's a truly ghastly Headteacher to hate as well as the Matron, and Tom is a very appealing hero.
I was quite moved in the concluding chapters as it all comes together for Tom and his new friends, and really enjoyed the constant gentle humour and simple story.
Brave, David - I hope this does well. It will be a lovely Christmas Dad adaptation as well. Will you be playing Tootsie this time?
Suitable for over 7s (and I might read it aloud to my 5 year old!).