In November 1990, the world lost Roald Dahl. He took with him a vivid imagination, a sense of humor both grisly and delightful, a healthy dose of no-nonsense, and more than his fair share of talent. Fortunately for us, he left behind pieces of his genius in the form of countless children's stories, novels, short story collections and more, to be enjoyed and delighted in by children and adults alike.
"Fairy tales have always got to have something a bit scary for children - as long as you make them laugh as well" - Roald Dahl
That Roald Dahl quote may succinctly sum up why decades of children have been delighted by Matilda, The Witches, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The BFG and more. Dahl recognized the lack of guile and pretense in the kids for whom he wrote. Children are unapologetically honest. If a child is on the bus, and sees some unfortunate soul ranting, swearing, and hitting his head against the window, then rather than gazing out the window and feigning obliviousness, a child will stare openly and ask, in a voice that will impossibly carry to every ear on the bus, “Mommy, What is wrong with that man?” A child will be unabashedly fascinated.
Rather than quashing this, Roald Dahl relished and respected it. Which is not to say that his gift for the grotesque discounted the magic and the wonder of childhood. The worlds Dahl created were populated by friendly giants, oversized talking insects, dedicated fathers, and beloved grandmothers. And, of course, the world's most amazing chocolate factory. Dahl's books were as full of excitement and joy as any, and just enough impossible, wonderful events to satisfy any child's craving for enchantment. It's no surprise that Dahl was able to conjure the fantastical and delightful as easily as the gruesome and dark. The story of his own life often reads like an adventure by turns horrible and marvelous. He was of Norwegian descent but born and raised in Wales. A memorable passage in the non-fiction account of his childhood, Boy, tells of a very young Dahl enduring the absolute agony of having his adenoids removed, without anesthetic. Another tells of the vicious caning he received by the headmaster of his school after being caught putting a dead rat in a jar of candy.
His adult life was equally colorful, and saw Dahl working for the Shell oil company and living in East Africa, enjoying harrowing encounters with big cats and deadly snakes. With the onset of WWII, he joined the Royal Air Force and flew a fighter plane, despite very basic, brief training. Of the 20 men who participated in his session of flight training, he was one of only three who survived. However, he was not unscathed: after being issued an obsolete model of aircraft with which he was not familiar, he crash-landed in the desert in Egypt and was very badly injured, spending five months in an Egyptian hospital. He was plagued by terrible headaches for years afterwards.
He began writing in 1942, after a transfer to Washington, D.C. and enjoyed his first publication - an account of his airplane crash, which ran in the Saturday Evening Post. He married twice - once in 1953 (to actress Patricia Neal, who passed away August 2010) and then again in 1983. His writing for children began in 1943 with the publication of The Gremlins, about mean-spirited hobgoblin-like creatures said to have been behind many of the mechanical problems of day-to-day life.
What made Roald Dahl so unusual as a children's author was his apparent relish of horrid, nasty, and unpleasant things that would make one's toes curl. In The Witches, the grandmamma not only smokes filthy, black cigars and drinks alcohol, but has a missing thumb, the absence of which Dahl hints at darkly throughout the book (no word on whether the amputation was Der Struwwelpeter related). In The BFG, the giant in question is friendly, but his compatriots snatch children from their beds as snacks in the dead of night. In James and the Giant Peach, not only were James' parents eaten by a rhinoceros, but his two aunts, charged with his care, beat him, and abuse him horribly.
And in true Dahl fashion, the aunts, rather than being turned in to social services, were run over and killed by the giant peach; squashed flat in their own garden. Their demise is later suitably celebrated with a song by James' new insect friends.
During his life, Dahl did write books aimed at adults—the details of his childhood and early adulthood (in Boy: Tales of Childhood and Going Solo), and a great many short stories. As a child, I remember savoring his books and appreciating their candor so much. To this day, I still enjoy his children's books as much as, if not more than, his more adult writing. His writing for grown-ups is absolutely worth exploring, mind you - I just feel the small people need his particular brand of hilarious, gruesome candor so much more.
Dahl died at age 74, of a blood disorder known as Myelodysplastic Syndrome. Rumor has it he was interred with some of the parts of life he loved most, including some wine, some chocolate, some power tools, his favorite pencils, and his billiards cues.
People passionate about, or wanting to learn more facts about Roald Dahl, can now visit the Roald Dahl Museum, located in Dahl's hometown of Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire. The museum was opened by Cherie Blair (wife of former UK PM Tony Blair) in 2005, to honor Dahl's life and writing and spread awareness about his literacy work).
1943Published in 1943, The Gremlins is the story of Gus, a British World War II fighter pilot, who during the Battle of Britain turned to look out on the wing of his plane only to see an amazing sight: a little man, no more than six inches tall with horns growing from his head, drilling a hole in the plane's wing. Gus was the first man to ever see a Gremlin, and what happened after that would change the war, and the world, forever. The story is famous and has been referenced in popular culture, including on The Simpsons. Prior to the book's publication, the term "gremlin" had been little known outside the Royal Air Force. The book has long been out-of-print and was faithfully reissued by Dark Horse Comics in 2006.
When four-year-old James' parents are eaten by a renegade rhinoceros, he must live with his monstrous and abusive aunts, Spiker and Sponge. Now seven, it's been a very tough few years for poor James, who beyond the torture and misery of his existence, is very lonely and needs a friend. One day, James meets a friendly wizard who gives him some magic crystals which he guarantees will brighten James' life.. James is devastated when he spills the crystals, but soon, a peach tree grows where they fell, and the peach gets bigger and bigger, until one day it's large enough that James can climb inside...
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Charlie Bucket is poor. Not can't-have-a-brand-new-bicycle poor, but sleep-on-the-floor-with-your-parents-while-grandparents-share-the-bed poor. After his father loses his job, things look bleak indeed. Charlie has heard many stories about the batty and reclusive candymaker Willy Wonka, and when he hears the factory will be opened for a tour to a few lucky winners, he is beside himself. But little does he imagine he might actually win! Charlie is about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime - and he might get more than he bargained for.
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To the Gregg family, hunting is fun. To the girl who lives next door, it's terrible. She tries to be polite. She tries to talk them out of it, but the Greggs go too far, and the little girl turns her Magic Finger on them, shrinking them and giving them birds' wings. After a series of funny, calamitous spells in which the Greggs must endure various tastes of their own medicine, they see the error of their ways and vow never to hunt again. Seeing their sincerity, the girl takes mercy on the wretched clan and turns them back into people. And they keep their promise. But will all the neighbors?
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"Boggis, Bunce, and Bean: one fat, one short, one lean. Those horrible crooks, so different in looks, are nonetheless equally mean. " When three greedy farmers decide they want to shoot a fox for trophy, and make it their business to starve the animals who live in the hillside, what is a fantastic fox to do, but fight back as craftily as possible? Badger, Rabbit, Mole and even Rat - the gang is all here in this satisfying, cider-soaked tale of cunning, creativity, revenge and redemption.
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Last seen flying through the sky in a giant elevator in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie Bucket is back for another adventure, this time with his parents and all four grandparents. When the elevator picks up speed, Charlie, Willy Wonka, and the gang are sent hurtling through space and time. Visiting the world's first space hotel, battling the dreaded Vermicious Knids, and saving the world are only a few stops along this remarkable, intergalactic joyride.
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Nine-year-old Danny's father William has a secret, and Danny has discovered it. They live together in an old caravan, and at night, William goes hunting - more specifically, poaching - pheasants from a nearby wealthy but unkind landowner. In fact, William has perfected pheasant poaching with his patented system, involving a raisin, a paper hat and a horse hair. One of Dahl's most suspenseful and exciting tales, Danny, the Champion of the World is full of tense moments and triumph.
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An enormous crocodile trudges through the jungle, bragging to the other animals that he's going to eat all the children possible. The Enormous Crocodile is incredibly hungry and incredibly greedy. His favorite meal is a plump, juicy little child, and he intends to gobble up as many of them as he can! But when the other animals in the jungle join together to put an end to his nasty schemes, the Enormous Crocodile learns a lesson he won't soon forget.
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How do you outwit a Twit? Mr. and Mrs. Twit are the smelliest, most hateful people in the world, as rotten as the thoughts in their heads. They're foul and loathsome and hate everything -- except playing mean jokes on each other, catching innocent birds to put in their Bird Pies, and making their caged monkeys, the Muggle-Wumps, stand on their heads all day. But the Muggle-Wumps have had enough. They don't just want out, they want revenge. Even a lovely monkey has his breaking point.
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George has a rotten grandmother. She's beastly and foul and mean and delights in nothing more than the misery and suffering of those around her. When George's parents are away for the day, he's tempted to do something about his tyrannical grandmother. "Something" means going round the house collecting all kinds of horrible ingredients that will make up a magic potion to make her disappear. But instead of disappearing, she gets bigger. And bigger. And then, you won't believe what happens.
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Sophie is a little girl who discovers that not only do giants exist, but they are fairly plentiful, and also, in the vast majority of cases, extremely nasty. With names like The Bonecruncher and The Childchewer, these fearsome beasts like nothing better than to gallop through towns snatching children and devouring them. Except for one giant, the BFG, whose acquaintance Sophie is lucky enough to make. The BFG and Sophie develop a close friendship, and together with help from a surprising source, they'll stop the vicious giants for good.
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A young boy's parents die in a car accident, and he goes to live with his beloved, cigar-smoking, wise Norwegian grandmother. He can talk to her about anything (except her missing thumb), and they get along famously. One day, she earnestly tells him about witches, and insists it is not make-believe. The boy scoffs, but as his grandmother reveals more of her tale, he soon believes her, and then begins to see the real evidence himself. Together, the two vow to take on the witches and eradicate them - first England, then the world!
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Young Billy has always longed to be the proprietor of his own sweet shop. Then he, along with the help of an unlikely band of do-gooders consisting of a monkey, a pelican and a giraffe, form a window-cleaning company. They receive a request from the Duke of Hampshire himself for the tremendous task of cleaning all 377 windows in Hampshire House. But when the quartet arrive to get the job done, a most unexpected plot twist occurs, resulting in a perforated pelican beak, a long overdue arrest, and dream-come-true endings for the giraffe, the pelican, the monkey - and Billy himself!
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There is nothing ordinary about Matilda Wormwood. Except, perhaps, for her beastly and ill-mannered parents. Matilda herself is bright as a button, precocious and unusual. Her parents are disinterested and unkind, so the little girl finds a kindred spirit in her teacher, Miss Honey, who takes Matilda under her wing. Together, the twosome take on Matilda's parents, the administration and more in an effort to get Matilda the support she needs. But no one, not Miss Honey nor Matilda herself, is prepared for the extent of Matilda's talents and abilities.
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Perhaps the weirdest tale of admiration from afar and courtship that the literary world has even seen, Roald Dahl's Esio Trot is definitely a memorable story. A man fancies his downstairs neighbor, but is too shy to ask her out. She confides to him that she is concerned that her pet tortoise, Alfie, is still quite small and seems stunted in growth. So Mr. Hoppy (our upstairs hero) concocts a bizarre plan, including purchasing several tortoises of ever increasing size, to get her attention and win her heart. What follows is endearing, funny and surprising.
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Published posthumously, Dahl's The Vicar of Nibbleswicke is the fantastic story of Reverend Robert Lee, the new vicar in the village of Nibbleswicke. The poor vicar is plagued by a bad case of back-to-front dyslexia, which causes him to pronounce words backwards, out loud. He isn't aware he's doing it, but frequently says nonsensical and even scandalous things, much to the shock and amusement of his parishioners. Dahl and illustrator Quentin Blake donated proceds from the book to The Dyslexia Institute in London.
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Fans of earlier Dahl works may find some familiar terrors lurking within the pages of The Minpins - mentions of Vermicious knids, Hornswogglers and more will have kids groaning with dread. These creatures and worse live in the Forest of Sin behind Little Billy's house, and as a result, Billy is forbidden to go into the forest. But Little Billy doesn't believe, and his curiosity overtakes his fear of punishment, and off he goes. One thing is for certain - Billy will never forget what he finds living in the forest.
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Revolting Rhymes is a short and very funny collection of poetry by Roald Dahl. The poems are written as Dahl's dark, funny and often gross answer to traditional folk and fairy tales, and are a parody thereof. Tales like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and Jack and the Beanstalk take on unexpected twist endings for a hilarious surprise for any kid.
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Dirty Beasts is all about animals. It's poetry again, and sets the scene with a cast of colorful characters ranging from an anteater (who falls sadly prey to the whims of a spoiled little boy, and becomes is pet, to eventual disastrous results), a toad, a snake, a scorpion and more. The oddest offering in the book is perhaps the tale of the Tummy Beast, who lives in a boy's stomach, creating horrible voices and eruptions (you can imagine).
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This is another book of poetry and parody by Roald Dahl, some being further examples of his twists on classic fairytales, and some offerings entirely of his own devising. However, unlike Revolting Rhymes and Dirty Beasts, Rhyme Stew comes with a disclaimer that the book is not intended for children, as there are many instances of risque or sexual humor throughout.
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