Normally with children’s books we read and adore them when we are young, but then age sets in and we start reading blander stuff, forgetting the joys of Slythindors and Wonderful Wizards of Narnia. However, the memory forever clings to Roald Dahl; snozzcumbers and frobscottle forever endure. The wonder of his plots, the joy of his language, the refreshingly unpatronising fun of it all – it stays as fresh in the mind as one of the scratchy Quentin Blake covers that accompanied his tales. In a world where there are probably too many books and where children are probably the most difficult audience to please, such persistence is an incredible achievement. Today, on what would have been Roald Dahl’s 100th birthday, seems the perfect time to reflect on that.
One of my strongest memories of reading as a boy is sitting down with George’s Marvellous Medicine and cackling with twisted glee as eponymous George concocted his potion to get revenge on his grandma. I also remember being even more delighted when, just at the moment you’d expect there to be a happy ending, Dahl snatched it away, shrinking George’s wicked grandma into nothingness. To add to it all, George is left ‘quite trembly’, while his parents just feel relieved that she’s gone. In many ways, I suppose, it’s quite a cruel story, but that’s the real wonder of it: Dahl often created grotesque caricatures of adults, and in doing so he appealed to us as children who felt that adulthood looked boring and that some adults were often just a bit mean. It felt like, more than any other person who has written for children, Roald Dahl really understood us.
It felt like, more than any other person who has written for children, Roald Dahl really understood us.
A quick look at Boy – Dahl’s book about his childhood and, for many of us, the first autobiographical work we ever read – shows that this opposition of childhood and adulthood was something that Dahl remembered about his own youth, as he recounts the story of ‘The Great Mouse Plot’, where he and his friends attempted to get revenge on a nasty sweetshop owner by putting a mouse in one of her sweet-jars. This shopkeeper pales in comparison to many of his adult villains, however, and a lot of authors might feel that showing a child treated as badly as James in James and the Giant Peach or Matilda (in Matilda) just isn’t the stuff of children’s literature. In fact, it is pretty much only if you are Roald Dahl. It is due to his ability to create completely relatable characters like Matilda and James and his constant knack for humour that he is able to use these – often extreme – situations to show his readers the beautiful justice of the world and make them laugh along the way.
However, when it comes to Roald Dahl, it’s impossible to generalise. For example, not all of Dahl’s villains are adults (think of Esio Trot), nor all of his children heroes (horrible children are frequent in Dahl’s universe). On a different note, in his Revolting Rhymes, Dahl delights in masterfully subverting well-known fairy-stories. Here, Little Red Riding Hood kills the wolf with a hidden gun and Dahl makes Hans Christian Andersen look like Hans Christian Bland–ersen in the process. Again, this is a brilliant relief from those dreadfully saccharine fairy-tales we all had to endure as children, and it’s the sort of dark and wonderfully imaginative twist that we all wanted to hear and that continues to make young people all over the Anglosphere and beyond feel gloriously vindicated. But, again, generalisation is impossible – not all of his books are even for children. I remember reading the short story ‘The Landlady’ at school and being surprised when I realised that its author was Roald Dahl and that this was actually one of the excellent Tales of the Unexpected that demonstrate his skill in suspense and irony, but without the relief found in his children’s stories. Thus, his younger audience could effectively grow up reading his work, contributing to his enduring reputation.
Roald Dahl will forever be the face of children’s literature.
As I finish, I feel like I should probably go back and talk about classics like The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but at the same time I really could go on forever and this is only a short article. Perhaps that is what is truly amazing about Roald Dahl – he really can’t be boiled down to just one book. If you were to ask anyone what they think of him, they would undoubtedly begin to reel off their favourite characters and moments and film adaptations. This is just testament to the fact that for many, and definitely for me, Roald Dahl will forever be the face of children’s literature. It is, then, the least I can do to raise a freshly-attempted pint of butterscotch and a (sort of successfully) homemade stink bug’s egg (both recipes found in Revolting Recipes) in his honour on the date of his centenary.