Thursday, April 25, 2013

Roald Dahl

Last time I wrote a post about children's books, you guys made a huge mistake: You told me to write more! Someone even said I should do a monthly post.
No extra prodding necessary, I could hardly help myself as it was.

A few months ago, a mom of four girls happened to mention that they were reading Anne of Green Gables at bedtime, but had almost finished it.
In no way was she asking me to run into the house and return with a three-foot tall stack of books for her children to read.
But that is what she got.
She picked up each book in turn. Then, picking up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, she exclaimed "Oh! I forgot about Roald Dahl!"
She forgot about Roald Dahl.
She. Forgot. About. Roald. Dahl.

People, do not forget about Roald Dahl.
Don't do it.
Read Roald Dahl yourself and then buy your kids a big box set of Roald Dahl books.

So, because I'm a teeny bit obsessed with making lists, I made a list of the reasons that your kids should read Roald Dahl, and why they will love it:

1. Kids are gross, and so is Roald Dahl:
Kids are seriously gross for real. Kids pick their noses and eat their boogers. Kids bring home worms and frogs after rain. Kids mix together all the sodas in the machine and drink them.
About ten times a day, I look at my kids and go, "UGH! Why are you doing that?"
And Roald Dahl embraces gross in the best way possible.
Roald Dahl characters have feet without toes, bulging eyes and ruddy cheeks, and wrinkled mouths full of tiny brown teeth. Roald Dahl characters make friends with giant blind earthworms, and eat rotten fruit, and get blown up into giant human blueberries.

2. Roald Dahl is creepy in an acceptable way:
Do you remember when everyone was really into Goosebumps? Kids like to be scared a little, especially when they know it's not real. Stories about dead Grandmas are not fun, because Grandmas can actually die. Creepy stories are best when they're unrealistic, so you can snuggle up in bed -safe and warm, and be just a little scared.
Don't let your kids read Goosebumps. They're awful. Let your kids read Witches, Matilda, and the BFG.
Witches is genuinely scary (again, in the best possible way). Here's the opening paragraph. Tell me you don't want to go get this book right now and read it:
In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks.
But this is not a Fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES.
The most important thing you should know about REAL WITCHES is this. Listen very carefully. Never forget what is coming next.
REAL WITCHES dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary house and they work in ORDINARY JOBS.
That is why they are so hard to catch.
A REAL WITCH hates children with a red-got sizzling hatred that is more sizzling and red-hot than any hatred you could possibly imagine.

The books are gross and scary, in the way that little kids love to be grossed out and scared.

3. Roald Dahl is hilarious, exactly the way that kids are hilarious:
You know that delightful way that kids say horrifying, embarrassing, profound and surprising things at exactly the wrong moment?
That's what Roald Dahl books are like.
Like at the beginning of Matilda, when Roald thinks of all the wonderful things he would write on report cards of awful children, "Your son Maximilian... Is a total wash-out. I hope you have a family business you can push him into when he leaves school, because he sure as heck won't get a job anywhere else."
But the really delightful thing about his humor, is that it usually includes the two things mentioned above: it is gross and slightly creepy.
I had a Roald Dahl treasury book as a kid, and always much preferred the poems in it, to the poems in my Shell Silverstein book (not the least because the Roald Dahl poems were illustrated by Quentin Blake).
But there were poems about a crocodile that ate children and was punished by being thrown like a rocket into the sun, where he sizzled up; about a pig who killed a farmer before the farmer could kill him; about little Red Riding Hood, who shot the wolf and turned his fur into a coat (and then she turned the three little pigs into traveling cases for good measure.)
I mean. Creepy. Gross. And hilarious.

Here's a bit from one of his poems, Cinderella:

In the kitchen, peeling spuds,
Cinderella heard the thuds
Of bouncing heads upon the floor,
And poked her own head round the door.

"What's all the racket?" Cindy cried.
"Mind your own bizz," the Prince replied.
Poor Cindy's heart was torn to threads.
My Prince! she thought. He chops of heads!
How could I marry anyone
Who does that sort of thing for fun?
The Prince cried, "Who's this dirty slut?
Off with her nut! Off with her nut!"
Just then, all in a blaze of light,
The Magic Fairy hove in sight,
Her Magic Wand went swoosh and swish!
"Cindy!" She cried. "Come make a wish!
Wish anything and have no doubt
That I will make it come about!"
Cindy answered, "Oh Kind Fairy,
This time I shall be more wary.
No more Princes, no more money.
I have had my taste of honey.
I'm wishing for a decent man.
They're hard to find. D'you think you can?"
Within a minute, Cinderella
Was married to a lovely feller,
A simple jam-maker by trade,
Who sold good home-made marmalade.
Their house was filled with smiles and laughter
And they were happy ever after.
(The entirety of that poem is worth a read. {Read it here.})

4. Good people and bad people are clearly identified:
Okay, so maybe those first three things didn't convince you to go buy some Roald Dahl books. You don't want your kids to be gross, scared, or to read horrific and hilarious stories about animals murdering people. Okay. I get that.
Then let's talk morals.
In Roald Dahl books, nobody's perfect. Sometimes the good guys poach and steal, sometimes they don't respect authority, sometimes they sneak and spy: but don't we all, a bit?
But the bad guys are mean. They are cruel and unkind. They are not generous, happy, or accepting. They are rude and hateful bullies.
And the bullies always get theirs.
In Roald Dahl, bad things happen to good people (It seems nearly all of his characters are orphaned, at least partially), because that's life- but the magical thing about good people is, they can make the best of things. And then, when bad things happen to them again, they know how to fight back. And at the end of things, good people get what they deserve: happy homes, love, and victory (even if they've been turned into a mouse) and bad guys get what they deserve: loneliness, unhappiness, or (usually) they've been squished, exploded, or shrunk down until they disappeared.
There are people who are good, and there are people who are bad- and it's always very clear that, whatever your flaws - it's worth it to be on the good side.

5. Roald Dahl thinks like a kid:
One of our neighbor girls recently showed off the disgusting grub that she'd dug up. She held it in her mud caked palm, with her hair tangled in a messy ponytail along with some dead leaves. Even though I was grossed out, I also kind of loved it.
"I was a lot like her as a 7 year-old," I told her mom.
"I have no idea what I was like," she replied. "I don't really remember being 7."
So here's the deal, grownups: reading Roald Dahl will remind you of being 7, and if you're not a grown up, but are in fact a 7 year old, then you will love these stories too.
One of my favorite examples of this is in James and the Giant Peach. James' parents die. If you or I were telling a story about a little orphan boy, we might say that the mother and father died in a car crash, or of an incurable illness- but if a child were telling the story, he would not be confined by such realistic and explicable deaths. He'd be likely to say, as Roald Dahl did:

Then, one day, James's mother and father went to London to do some shopping, and there a terrible thing happened. Both of them suddenly got eaten up (in full daylight, mind you, and on a crowded street) by an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo.

Um what?
But a child accepts this, takes it in stride and moves on. The important thing isn't how they've died, but that they did die- now let's get on with he story of poor James.
Roald Dahl said, "I am totally convinced that most grown-ups have completely forgotten what it is like to be a child between the ages of five and ten... I can remember exactly what it was like. I am certain I can."

6. He is a phenomenal story teller:
And if those things aren't enough to convince you, let me remind you: Roald Dahl is a master story teller. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox, the Witches, the BFG, Danny the Champion of the World, Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang.
I'm willing to bet that everyone who reads this has heard of and read (or at least seen the movies of) almost all of those gloriumptous, phizz-whizzing, scrumdiddlyumptious stories.
(Okay, so maybe scrumdiddlyumptious doesn't apply in that sentence, unless you agree that books are delicious and lovely.)

And for you grownups, first of all: Roald wrote some books for adults, but my favorite of his books are his autobiographies. (He denies that they are such, but they are and they're magnificent.)
Boy and Going Solo are so fun to read, Travis and I read both aloud over the last few months and were sometimes completely hysterical (okay, mostly me) - stories of whippings at school, practical jokes, and tales from Africa are much more delightful when you know that they're real.
You know the scene in You've Got Mail, when Meg Ryan is the storybook lady? She's reading an excerpt from Boy, when Roald Dahl sticks a dead mouse into the candy jar of a cruel neighboring shop owner. Every time I'd seen that movie, I'd thought, "This sounds like a Roald Dahl story, but what is it?!"
Well, now I know
And now, go get Boy from your library.
(Also, I got a boxset from Costco of like 15 Roald Dahl books for $25 and I would HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT.)

So what about you? Who introduced you to Roald Dahl and which book is your favorite?
And do you agree with my list? Gross, creepy, and hilarious, right?

{Click HERE} to read my last post about Children's Books: Some Books are Perfect. 

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Betsy Hite Reddoch said...

I love love love Boy so very much. It gained even more meaning when I had two boys of my own.

My favorite of his fiction is Danny the Champion of the World, which is so delightful I'm smiling just thinking about it.

When Wes Anderson made Fantastic Mr. Fox I was in heaven. Heaven.

I do not recommend Dahl's adult fiction (at least the one I read). Though a mostly witty, fun and irreverent read, it left me feeling icky.

Elizabeth said...

I probably like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda best, though every one I have read is good. The Great Glass Elevator is awesome, but so weird.

Also, I did not think Roald Dahl wrote Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang. Am I wrong?

tammy said...

I already answered your question in my comment on your last post. Great post! I love him but I have more to read by him so thanks!

Emily said...

I always wanted to know what that book was in You've Got Mail!! Thank you! My sister and I have been trying to figure out for ages (by the way, my sister's name is Kathleen Kelly. For reals.) My hubby and I were just bemoaning the other night how we don't have any Roald Dahl books and we need to get some because I reference Matilda all. the. time.

Thanks for another great book post, Becky! I love them!

Angela said...

I love James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, etc. I wasn't a huge fan of Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. It was just beyond my weirdness tolerance, I guess. It just didn't make much sense to me as a kid. :-)


kristen_lavalley said...

LOVE. And now I'm going to the library first thing monday morning.