I learnt earlier this week that there is a Roald Dahl Day, every year on the anniversary of his birth on 13th September. And, for a few brief hours on Twitter, it appeared that people all over the world were celebrating his wonderful storytelling and magical imagination.
My eldest daughter is 8, and has read, listened to or watched pretty much everything Roald Dahl has written for children. She revisits them endlessly. What inspires and excites me about Roald Dahl’s writing is that (like Pixar films) the creativity, stories, characters, prose and dialogue always seem fresh, funny, interesting every time. They’re simply much better than most children’s fiction.
They’re much better because, on the one hand, the stories are often simple and easy to understand…
- Danny lives a bohemian existence with his Dad, who shows him all sorts of wonderful tricks and adventures
- Charlie wins a competition and experiences a fantastical trip through a chocolate factory unlike anywhere else
- Matilda is ignored by her parents but inspired by her teacher to discover her natural talent
- George is left alone with his tyrannical Grandmother, and plays a trick on her…
But at the same time, the stories are often dark, full of real threat and danger to the main characters, and there are some brilliant villains who are genuinely nasty. There’s an underlying depth to the writing that truly appeals to children. Roald Dahl seems to understand children, in that his stories are simple, and the stakes are easy to understand (can Sophie and The BFG stop the other Giants from eating children?), but explore complex themes and relationships (Sophie is an orphan, longing for parental love and affection, she has to face many dangers and take the initiative herself).
There’s usually a very strong central hero to each story, and these are almost as likely to be girls as boys. Sophie faces true mortal peril in The BFG, and has to enlist The Queen of England in her quest to save England’s children. Matilda also has to outwit and survive’ the terrible Miss Trunchbull. Danny has to act decisively to help his father when a scheme goes awry.
There’s a healthy(?) disrespect for authority, especially when that authority is misplaced, unnatural, or exploits children. George inflicts a terrible trick with his Marvellous Medicine, but to be honest his Grandmother deserved it. Miss Trunchbull bullies and suppresses children in her school, but gets her come-uppance at Matilda’s hands, and we celebrate her downfall. Fantastic Mister Fox thieves and pillages from Farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean, but they are such grossly unpleasant men we are glad of it. When The Giant Peach squashes the miserable Aunts Spiker and Sponge and James makes his escape from their abuse, we are exhilarated and thrilled.
There’s an independence of spirit and courage in Roald Dahl’s characters that inspires children. This is made even more real by an often complete absence of parental figures, with the love, affection, attention and protection they would usually bring. Matilda is a child genius rejected by her parents. In James and the Giant Peach, James is an orphaned child who also rejected and abused by his two aunts. Sophie starts The BFG in an orphanage. Yet despite these circumstances, the children use their wit, bravery and intelligence in positive and affirmative ways. They are never victims.
Best of all, Roald Dahl’s stories seem to assume that the fantastical and magical is and can be all around us, if we only believe it. He twists the norms of ‘old-fashioned’ children’s stories (remember he wrote many of these books in the 1960s), and subverts our expectations. His Revolting Rhymes and Dirty Beasts collections of poems are clever and often extremely funny, like this take on Cinderella…
We’ve loved listening to his books read aloud, notably Geoffrey Palmer as The BFG, and Simon Callow’s inspired reading of The Twits. I’ve tried in vain to find a clip of that, but trust me, it’s fantastic. Alongside the richness of the characterisation, one of the biggest joys of reading Roald Dahl’s stories are the tremendous illustrations by Quentin Blake. They are utterly charming and bring the words to life with real magic.
Roald Dahl’s life and work has been brilliantly remembered at a museum in Great Missenden, which is true to his spirit for both adults and children. There are storytelling sessions, brilliant interactive exhibitions and hand-on displays, as well as dressing up opportunities…
I thoroughly recommend Roald Dahl’s fiction for children in pretty much all its forms, including the museum. Think like a child, be open to the magic, and you will be be thrilled forever.