In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

My love/hate relationship with Roald Dahl

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I've often found our family's taste to be out of the mainstream; I've even been known to take a perverse pride in it.  That being said, I'm sorry that your favorites this year didn't win the big awards.  Ah, well.  Maybe next year?

I am, happily, writing to you from my maternity leave (or rather, in Dept. of Education parlance, my Restoration of Health leave, which comes before my Maternity and Childcare leaves.  Each of these, you understand, requires separate forms).  In any case, I've finished up my end-of-semester grading and am able to rest a bit and prepare for the arrival of Barleybee, who's due in a few weeks.  So there's a maternity leave from the blog pending, but right now, I'm back!

Thank you for the fabulous birthday gifts for Eleanor (and Isabel, and Barleybee) -- we've been reading new books from you since opening them last night.  As always, you are an amazing gift-giver.

The book I want to focus on tonight came from you for Christmas, and reading it to Eleanor has reminded me of how much I love -- and really, really don't love -- Roald Dahl.

Like pretty much every kid I know, I went through a huge Roald Dahl phase in elementary school.  I've read most of his novels, and scenes from several of them -- Danny the Champion of the World, James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -- are ingrained in my mind.  I have vivid memories of lying to my mother about how much I had left to read and sneaking an extra chapter in before bedtime: these were addictive, thrilling page-turners, filled with heroic kids and mostly ineffectual or evil adults; modern, super-readable fairy tales.  Jeff remembers loving Dahl as well.  Tonight when we talked about it, he referred to a "gleefully malevolent juvenile quality that spoke to me as a ten-year-old boy."  His aunt Karen, who teaches elementary school in Texas, reports that her 3rd graders love Dahl more than just about anyone, from the fabulous plots to cliffhangers and the fart-joke humor.

Even as a kid, though, there were moments that made me queasy.  There's a lot of straight-up meanness in Dahl's work, not only in books like The Twits, which Jeff remembers as "an exercise in sustained cruelty," but in some of the books containing his most empathetic characters.  Reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and now The BFG to Eleanor, it's hard not to feel that Roald Dahl just didn't like people very much.  Aside from one main character at a time -- Charlie, Sophie, Matilda -- the supporting cast is treated with an off-hand cruelty that's quite off-putting.  In The BFG, Dahl takes equal delight in describing farts ("whizz-poppers"), good dreams that the BFG catches and puts in jars, and the bone-crunching bloody exploits of the mean hairy giants who gallop off every night to eat people in all corners of the world.  When the bad giants are caught at the end, they're sentenced to a sadistic imprisonment, forced to eat repulsive snozzcumbers in a pit while being watched by tourists.  Somehow, it feels more cruel than killing them off.

Eleanor loved The BFG. She loved the heroine, Sophie, who is brave and intelligent and gets to ride in a friendly giant's ear.  She loved the BFG, with his charming way of mangling words and his vocation of blowing good dreams into the ears of sleeping children.  She was on tenterhooks whenever Sophie was in danger of being discovered by the mean giants, jumping around on the couch or covering her head with a pillow.  As I read her the many descriptions of giants eating "human beans," however, or the almost as gross descriptions of hairy giant bellies and slobbery wet giant mouths, I couldn't help wondering if I were setting her up for nightmares.

Maybe these are books better read by kids alone, and a few years older.  I can't decide -- it's hard to separate out the pleasure from the meanness.

Love, Annie


  1. I don't really like Dahl and never have and my 7-year-old is similarly turned off. She finds the books scary; I find them creepy and unpleasant. I would like to read her Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, though, which I think is the least offensive of the bunch and some interesting ideas about the consequences of your actions!

  2. but...mean is fun!

    (hi annie)