Twenty years ago, 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
Roald 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, rather than pretending not to notice and gazing out the window, 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.
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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...
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.
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. Together, the two vow to take on the witches and eradicate them - first England, then the world!
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.
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.
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. With a lot of creativity, and the help of an African Roly-Poly Bird, the Muggle-Wumps endeavor to show Mr. and Mrs. Twit what happens to nasty people who mistreat others.
Charlie Bucket is poor. Not can't-have-a-brand-new-bicycle poor, but sleep-on-the-floor-with-your-parents-while-all-four-grandparents-share-the-bed poor. He often doesn't have enough to eat, and after his father loses his job (screwing on toothpaste tube caps in a factory), 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.
Published 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 book has long been out-of-print and was faithfully reissued by Dark Horse Comics in 2006. The copy here is a true first edition, which are becoming scarce.
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 giant 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. Fasten your seatbelts - with Willy Wonka at the helm, you never know what might happen!