A bulk of my time the past few weeks has been spent delving into the life and work (as far as children’s literature) of Roald Dahl for a project. Reading his works as a child, they were quirky, humorous, and magical. Reading his works as an adult, then, they unsurprisingly held that same magic. Equally captivating and complex was his life, which would merit a biography even if he had not eventually created the multitude of scrumdiddlyumptious stories that he thankfully did. Now having read all of his children’s works (looking toward his adult fiction next), some for the first time, here are five — or maybe more — of my favorites…
“I was glad my father was an eye-smiler. It meant he never gave me a fake smile because it’s impossible to make your eyes twinkle if you aren’t feeling twinkly yourself. A mouth-smile is different. You can fake a mouth-smile any time you want, simply by moving your lips. I’ve also learned that a real mouth smile always has an eye-smile to go with it. So watch out, I say, when someone smiles at you with his mouth but his eyes stay the same. It’s sure to be a phony.”
This may be the most sentimental, most grounded in reality (no talking animals or magical powers here), most wonderful of all Dahl’s stories. It’s about a young boy, Danny, who lives with his marvelous father in a gypsy caravan. His father operates a filling station by day and engages in poaching pheasants by night. The pheasants inhabit the property of a cruel rich man, Victor Hazell, who sets a trap for poachers, namely Danny’s father. As opening day for pheasant season, on which Mr. Hazell hosts a extravagant party for stuffy rich people, nears, Danny devises a plan to poach ALL the pheasants before the big day — and if he succeeds, he will become the champion of the world!
The relationship between Danny and his father is so sweet — Danny thinks his father is the most wonderful person in the world, and he is! He teaches him, listens to him, walks him to school each day, and tells him bedtime stories, one of which features a character called The BFG…
2. The BFG
“‘A whizzpopper!’ cried the BFG, beaming at her. ‘Us giants is making whizzpoppers all the time! Whizzpopping is a sign of happiness. It is music in our ears! You surely is not telling me that a little whizzpopping is forbidden among human beans?'”
Whizzpopping = farting. The BFG speaks his own language, and it is wonderful.
The Big Friendly Giant, aka The BFG, collects and delivers good dreams to children. He is not like the other giants who are cruel, stupid, and eat humans. He is kind, eats snozzcumbers, and teaches himself new words by reading books by Dahl’s Chickens. (Get it? Dahl’s Chickens = Charles Dickens.) One night he captures a little orphan girl, Sophie, and they become friends. Together, they set out to rid the human world of those nasty, human-eating giants.
The BFG, who made his first appearance in Danny, the Champion of the World, was also a bedtime story Dahl would tell his own children, once going so far as to even dress up and visit his daughters’ bedroom window, pretending to be the BFG.
3. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Mr. Fox is absolutely fantastic. He is so clever and outwits those three horrid farmers: Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. He does this because he is fantastic and clever and loves his family very much. Some have claimed this is the most autobiographical of all Dahl’s works, as he saw himself as a sort of Mr. Fox, a paterfamilias who held his young family together through crisis after tragedy after crisis — an accident that jeopardized the life of his young son Theo (resulting in Dahl eventually creating a new cerebral shunt to drain excess fluid from the brain), the death of his young daughter Olivia from measles encephalitis, and the stroke of his first wife, Patricia Neal. He even began to think that he was plagued with a neurological curse (he himself had suffered severe head injuries following a crash in his plane en route to his squadron in World War II). But he was resilient. And absolutely fantastic. Just like Mr. Fox.
And because this is relevant to my interests, here’s Damon Albarn reading an excerpt from Fantastic Mr. Fox:
Sigh. What a reading voice!
Matilda is a bright, humble, young girl whose abilities go unnoticed and unnourished by her uncaring and dishonest parents, and so she escapes into a world of books. Miss Honey is her kind teacher who recognizes how special she is. But Miss Honey has problems of her own — like her cruel aunt who robbed her of her inheritance, Miss Trunchbull, who also happens to be the principal of Matilda’s school. Miss Trunchbull is truly horrid, throwing “naughty” children into the “chokey” and making a young boy sick on chocolate cake. Dahl had similarly cruel headmasters, masters (teachers), and matrons at the English boarding schools he attended. Unlike Matilda, however, he did not have any special powers to exact revenge on them. Then again, creating books filled with horrible characters based on those old teachers just might be the best revenge and most special power of all.
5. The Witches
“‘Tell me what else to look for in a witch,’ I said. ‘The eyes,’ my grandmother said. ‘Look carefully at the eyes because the eyes of a REAL WITCH are different from yours and mine. Look in the middle of each eye where there is normally a little black dot. If she is a witch, the black dot will keep changing color, and you will see fire and you will see ice dancing right in the very centre of the coloured dot. It will send shivers running all over your skin.'”
Dahl’s father died when he was 3, but his mother was a great influence on him, telling him great stories about Norwegian myths, legends, and mythical creatures that would influence him as a storyteller. The grandmother in The Witches is undoubtedly his literary tribute to her. She, like his own mother, tells the story’s protagonist, a young orphaned boy, great stories, including a handful about REAL witches. Yes, there are real witches, and oh, are they horrid. While staying in a hotel, the young boy discovers the Grand High Witch conducting the annual meeting of England’s witches. During the meeting, the Grand High Witch unveils an evil plan to turn ALL of England’s children into mice. The young boy and his grandmother then design a plan of their own to rid England of all its witches.
Although I kept waiting for the story to end differently, I am sort of glad it didn’t. Its ending celebrates a love based on the kind of person you are inside, not what you look like on the outside. And they said Roald Dahl was macabre…
6. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
“‘I don’t want a grown-up person at all. A grown-up won’t listen to me; he won’t learn. He will try to do this his own way and not mine. So I have to have a child. I want a good, sensible, loving child, one to whom I can tell all my most precious sweet-making secrets – while I am still alive.'”
Of course I have to mention Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Nearly everyone knows the story of poor Charlie Bucket, who finds the final coveted golden ticket to enter Willy Wonka’s marvelous chocolate factory. I love the Oompa Loompas singing their songs to those naughty, naughty children. I love the idea of a chocolate river. I love the idea of winning a golden ticket, visiting this extraordinary chocolate factory, and eventually inheriting that factory.
One of Dahl’s happier experiences during his time at boarding school was that he was able taste-test chocolate bars for Cadbury, inspiring a lifelong love of chocolate. He was an expert on chocolate and its history. He ate a chocolate bar every day and instead of throwing the silver wrapper away, would roll it into a ball, which he kept in his writing hut. Love this guy.
7. Boy: Tales of Childhood
“One day, when we lifted it up, we found a dead mouse lying among our treasures. It was an exciting discovery. Thwaites took it out by its tail and waved it in front of our faces. ‘What shall we do with it?’ he cried.
‘It stinks!’ someone shouted. ‘Throw it out of the window quick!’
‘Hold on a tick,’ I said. ‘Don’t throw it away.’
Thwaites hesitated. They all looked at me.
When writing about oneself, one must strive to be truthful. Truth is more important than modesty. I must tell you, therefore, that it was I and I alone who had the idea for the great and daring Mouse Plot. We all have our moments of brilliance and glory, and this was mine.
‘Why don’t we’, I said, ‘slip it into one of Mrs. Pratchett’s jars of sweets? Then when she puts her dirty hand in to grab a handful, she’ll grab a stinky dead mouse instead.'”
Part of what made Dahl such an effective writer for children was that he was able to enter the mind of a child so easily, remembering how they see the world. That skill partly derived from his equally important skill of being able to vividly recall his own childhood, a skill he deftly demonstrates in Boy. Although Dahl occasionally sacrificed complete factual accuracy for the sake of an exciting and entertaining narrative, Boy is nonetheless rooted in reality and is as compelling as any fictional story he ever wrote. The Great Mouse Plot is incredible.
Roald Dahl was a spectacular storyteller. His stories are varied and timeless — and hopefully children (and adults, too!) will continue to read (…kids still read, right?) and enjoy them for years and years to come.