|Roald Dahl's gypsy caravan|
Many years ago, a tall English gentleman climbed into a small gypsy caravan and wrote a marvelous book for children called Danny, the Champion of the World. It wasn’t the first book he wrote, or the last. It wasn’t the most famous. It was, however, the book that made that tall English gentleman important to a young American girl of little consequence. One day, that girl would grow up and write books of her own. Not clever books for children, but stories shaped, nonetheless, by all she loved and cherished in her first favorite book – the one written by Roald Dahl.
Roald Dahl did something extraordinary that very few authors have done before or since: He wrote books for children. If you are thinking, that’s not such a strange thing – there are thousands of people who write books for children, then I am sorry to tell you this, but you are wrong. While it is true that many people write books to children, and many more write books for the parents of children, that is not the same thing.*
You see, parents tend to be terribly fond of their children (even when they are squibbling brats who stuff their faces with sweets, watch too much television or talk while chewing gum). Second only to that terrible fondness comes dreadful fear – fear that their children will mimic their bad habits or reveal them in public places. This fear keeps parents up at night (along with the fear that their children will be stolen from their beds and eaten alive by the Gizzardgulper or Bonecruncher**).
You would think this fear would cause parents to change their ways and become better role models, but I’m sorry to say, it does not. (Of course not! Don’t be absurd!) Instead, parents buy their children books filled with fables, cautionary tales and moral lessons. Then they cross their figglers, hoping their children will learn how to behave. It never works. It hasn’t worked in ten thousand years of parents trying this again and again, but they keep at it anyway, which is why there are so many swashboggling, ucky-mucky books that children will not read.
“Children are not so serious as grownups. And they love to laugh.”
I don’t suppose Mr. Dahl cared much what parents wanted him to write, but he knew what children like – stories written in black and white, but filled with colorful characters. Friends can be tall like giants or tiny like bugs. A cruel aunt will be fat like a cabbage or thin like a stick. Charlie Bucket’s grandparents were not just old, they were ancient, wrinkly bedridden folks with nothing left to give but love. Wonka’s chocolate factory wasn’t just large, it was the biggest in the world!
Mr. Dahl, I think, was trying to tell us something by using these extremes. Mr. Hazell was rich and cruel – not because rich people are never kind, but because it’s so entirely unforgivable when they are not! Miss Trunchbull’s idea of a perfect school was one without any students at all – not because principals often hate children, but because they never, ever should.
Children love Roald Dahl’s books because he tells them truths that other grownups would rather keep secret. (For example: grownups pick their noses, just like children, and everyone whizzpops from time to time – even movie stars and presidents!) He gave children power over injustice – along with the capacity for just a tiny helping of revenge. In his world, Matilda could use magic to save Miss Honey, James could flatten his horrid aunt with a giant peach and Sophie could save England (and the Queen herself!) from flesh-eating giants. Only in Roald Dahl’s world could Charlie find money on the street just in time to unwrap the last golden ticket!
“My dear boy, Mr. Willy Wonka is the most amazing, the most fantastic, the most extraordinary chocolate maker the world has ever seen!”
– Grandpa Joe
Mr. Dahl’s extremes also help children see each story from the best perspective. You may love chocolate, but you don’t love it like a boy who eats nothing but watery cabbage soup while living in a town where the very air smells like chocolate. You may have fantastical dreams, but you haven't had a phizzwizard like the B.F.G. could give you. And you might have parents who don’t understand you, but they have probably never told you to put away your flaming book and watch the telly instead, like Matilda’s.
“Down with children! Do them in! Boil their bones and fry their skin!”
One of Mr. Dahl’s favorite things to do was scare children half to death. Whether with witches disguised as philanthropists, giants who wanted to munch their bones, or schoolmistresses who delighted is squashing little girls, he was ever so fond of making young readers quake under their covers. You would think that this, combined with his disregard for parents (not to mention his overuse of adjectives and exclamation marks), would have made it impossible for the poor man to sell a single book, but he did. (In fact, his first book for children, James and the Giant Peach, has sold more than 5 million copies.) Not only did Roald Dahl sell his own stories, he also encouraged children to read the classics, like Hemingway, Tolkien and Dylan Thomas. (In the first chapter of Matilda, he provides a handy list.)
But of all the delightful, magical stories Roald Dahl wrote, the one without magic – Danny’s story – was the one I cherished most. Maybe it was because Danny never moved from his tiny home on wheels, while I moved from house to house to house, even though every one of them had a concrete foundation. Maybe it was because Danny’s father was a lawbreaker but also an eye-smiler and a kind and loving man, and I knew too well that fathers who don’t ever break laws can nonetheless be cruel and neglectful.
Danny’s world seemed like a real one, but I still found it magical. I still found myself inside those pages.
|Sophie and the B.F.G., illustrated by Quentin Blake|
It is so easy to get caught up in Mr. Dahl’s imaginative worlds, it seems even he could not leave one behind while creating another. That’s why James’ giant peach rolled through Wonka’s chocolate factory. It's why Danny’s father told bedtime stories about the B.F.G.
I think it's why that tall English gentleman wrote himself right into his own story, making himself the friendly giant who learned to read and write – the real B.F.G.
As a child, I often escaped to Mr. Dahl's worlds when I closed my eyes at night. In my mind, Oompa-Loompas were real, snozzcumbers were the most disgusting vegetable imaginable and a Whipple Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight was the most wonderful thing a person could ever taste.
Of course, my imagination has always had a habit of running away from me. But I like to think there is another explanation. Perhaps one night, long ago, the real B.F.G. ran with great leaping bounds all the way to America so he could pipe sweet, chocolaty, splendiferous dreams through my open window.
*I suspect that any other authors who write for children are taking daily doses of Wonka-Vites (including the hip, the po and the pot of a hippopotamus).