I am so sick of Roald Dahl. It’s not that he isn’t great, or that the depth of his imagination isn’t enough to shame 99% of other novelists that have walked the earth, or that he’s not a first-ballot, absolute lock of a Kid Author Hall of Famer. But enough is enough. For much of the past two years, Abby and I have been reading Roald Dahl books, and nothing else. We started with my old copies of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, and then we moved on to The Witches and The BFG, which were similarly twisted and inspired, and then we… just… kept… going. (You’re welcome for the extra-sweet royalty checks, Roald Dahl Estate.) We drilled down, never relenting, never coming up for air, journeying deeper and deeper into the warped, kind of misanthropic worldview that our youngest daughter seems to relate to on some primal level. (I’m choosing not to ask why this is.) To mix kid book author metaphors, we fell headlong down the ol’ rabbit hole.
Does it sound like I’m complaining? I don’t mean to. I’m sick of Roald Dahl, but I also love Roald Dahl. I love his sense of humor and the way his plots unfold in such loose, spontaneous, strange ways — exactly the way a plot would unfold if you were just making up a story on the spot — and I love that he wrote so much, as if writing were a switch that, once flipped on, could never ever be turned off, no matter how old he got or how much money, or acclaim, he earned. I love the names Veruca Salt and Fleshlumpeater, Trunchbull and Bloodbottler, Sponge and Spiker. My only quibble is that, when you read nothing but for two years, some of the seams start to show. You can see him, every so often, reaching into his bag of writerly tricks. Some patterns reveal themselves. Seven-year-old girls, though: they adore those patterns and tricks, adore those sputtering grown-ups and invented words and hairy, disgusting moles on wrinkly, disgusting faces and grumpy rhyming poems and the ominousness that always seems to hang over everything, but that never, in the end, completely descends. It’s been quite a run, this Roald Dahl run that Abby and I have been on. I’m glad we did it, but I don’t want to do it again, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone.
Here: the Dahl Canon, as presented by Dahl’s number one fan, Abby. — Andy
“Matilda’s a little girl who loves to read books, but her father and mother don’t want her to read books. They want her to watch TV allllllllll the time. But one day, she feels like, ‘I want to go to school.’ So her mom drops her off at this school, and then she meets a girl who tells her about the principal [scary voice] Mrs. Trunchbull! She’s a really really mean person, and she talks in a really mean way. I can’t describe it. Mrs. Trunchbull’s daughter is Mrs. Honey, but you only find that out at the end. Don’t write that, daddy! You’ll ruin it! This book is about how Matilda has a hard life, but is an amazingly smart girl. It’s for people who are interested in reading. I don’t even want to talk about the movie.”
Grade: 9 (out of 10)
“This is gonna be hard. I love this book so much. It’s about a fox. A fox who promised his wife he would never steal a chicken or whatever, what was it called? Yeah, a chicken. No no no no no. It’s like a bird? Never mind. But then he secretly goes on a mission to steal chickens with a mole, Kylie, and they have to avoid these three mean farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. One day, the farmers figure out that the fox is trying to steal their food, so they decide to dig up his home, which is under a tree. Question: how did they know that he lived in a tree? Well, because he snuck out one night and they shot his tail off, so that’s how they knew where he lived. This book has so many interesting emotions. No, no. So many interesting… parts.”
*Abby says: “If there was a 20, I would give this book a 20.” But you can give it whatever you want. “Then give it a 20!”
“So a boy lives, um, wait…start over. No, stop. Okay. Well, an old man lives on top of an old lady in an apartment building. He likes the old lady. She has a turtle named Alfie and she’s so proud of him, but she wants him to grow. And the old man thinks of a plan: He wants to do something to make her turtle grow, so he goes to the pet store and gets a turtle that’s a couple inches bigger but looks exactly like Alfie, and he switches the turtles the next day. Anyway, at the end of the book, the old lady notices that Alfie has grown verrrry big and she’s really happy. The old lady and the man get married and he never tells her about the trick he played. I like this book because the idea is like totally unexpected. And the title is really ‘tortoise’ backwards. It’s like a code.”
*Parent note: One of his minor works, for sure, but a total pleasure and can be read in two nights.
“Kind of dull and boring. I didn’t finish it.”
“This is a book about a crocodile who lives in the muddy rivers of Africa. So. He decides that he wants to have a juicy, yummy child — no wait, plump; a plump child — for lunch. So he goes into the town, but he runs into different animals that try to get him away from the children because they care about the children. Wait, dadddy, I want to keep going! I’m not done. I like this book because it’s a really, um, interesting book and it’s a little bit complicated but not too much. I’ve read it a thousand times. Okay, that’s it.”
*Parent note: If you ever read to your kids’ classes, this one works like a charm. Takes about 15-20 minutes from start to finish, hits all the right funny-scary-silly notes. Lots of opportunities to do voices while reading, too. My crocodile sounds like a poor man’s Barry White; Jenny’s sounds like a girl trying to sound like a poor man’s Barry White.
“This book is so funny! You know how it looks short? Well, it has so many stories in it. It’s about a woman and a man who hate each other. First the old man puts a frog in the old lady’s bed, but then the old lady gets mad. Very mad. So she makes him spaghetti, but she doesn’t use pasta. She uses worms. Then, he gets very mad at her, and this is funny: every day when she went to sleep, he would take her cane and make it a little bit longer each night, so it would look like the lady was shrinking. He said to the old lady, ‘Oh no, it looks like you’ve got the shrinks!’ But then, she’s like, ‘How do I cure the shrinks?’ This is the kind of book that has funny stuff like this. It’s funny fighting between people. I don’t think a four-year-old would understand it.”
“The main topic is a girl whose neighbors like to hunt, and she so turns them into ducks with her magic finger. It’s a long journey in a short book. Whenever the girl gets frustrated or mad at a person, her magic finger automatically begins to work up. She was born with it. At the end, other neighbors start shooting ducks, and so it starts all over again. It’s a combination of girls and boys. Both will like it. It’s not like a girly book.”
*Parent Note: We call books like this “halfway house” books, i.e. just right for kids just starting to grow out of picture books but aren’t quite ready for full-on, text-heavy chapter books. The Enormous Crocodile fits into this category, too.
“I love this book. Remember how much fun we had reading it? A little boy goes to visit his grandma in Norway. But his grandma tells him about witches who live in Norway. When you read this book, listen carefully to how the witches are described, because it’s very interesting. It’s disgusting, but it’s a really good book because it goes from something totally unexpected to another thing unexpected. The book travels through my mind, that’s what it does. I think it’s not really funny or scary. It’s in the middle, you know? It’s my favorite book he wrote.”
“A little boy has two entirely ugly aunts. His parents died. One day while he’s out looking for firewood, an old man comes and gives them these magic rocks and says that if you add water and drink them in one gulp, fabulous things will start happening, but don’t drop them of give them to anyone else, or fabulous things will start happening to someone else. The boy trips and drops the rock, and they disappear into the ground. A gigantic peach sprouts and squishes the two aunts. For the rest of the book, he travels around on the peach. This is for a person who likes adventure. It’s so good and funny. Also a little mean.”
*Parent note: This, along with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, gets our vote for Best Introduction to Roald Dahl.
Danny the Champion of the World
“This book should win an award. It’s about a boy and his dad. His mom died when he was little. And his dad steals Mr. Hazell’s pheasants. One day, well, his dad goes out to do it and falls into a pit, but that’s at the end of the book. And Danny takes his father’s car to Mr. Hazell’s yard, where his dad was caught, and rescues him and they get some pheasants. No, I don’t want to give away the entire ending. It’s awwwwwwwesome.”
* Parent note: Abby would disagree vehemently with this, but God, do I love this book. Maybe my favorite Roald Dahl book of all, but then again, it’s about a boy and his dad, so maybe I’m just dealing with my own issues here…
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
“I love this book so much, I can’t explain it. You know what grade it’s getting? 10, of course. Phoebe is afraid of this book because Augustus Gloop gets sucked up in a chocolate pond that has a pipe. But I love it because it’s such an interesting, like, idea. I mean, I would never think of a title that crazy! That’s why I really like it. What’s the word? It’s just, like, Roald Dahl’s whole imagination in one book. That’s what it is. There’s a lot of candy in this book that he invents. The candy he put in here isn’t real. Mr. Wonka makes it, but you can’t buy it at stores. I think that it has a tiny bit of fear, but a lot of happiness. This was the first Roald Dahl book I ever read.”
*Parent note: What Abby said.
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
“This book is about Charlie again, and you’re supposed to read it after the Chocolate Factory. We read some of it, but I didn’t have so much interest in it. It was just about a boy who goes into an elevator and it wasn’t the best book Roald Dahl wrote. That’s what I’m saying.”
“BFG stands for Big Friendly Giant. It’s about a giant. And there’s a little girl who can’t sleep and she looks out the window in the middle of the night and she sees this giant and he knows that she saw him and so he carries her off and takes her to his home, where there are 12 other awful, mean giants. But BFG is really nice, actually. The mean giants eat children and they go into different countries every night and snatch them out of their beds. And the girl and the BFG think that’s awful, so they decide to stop them. They come up with a plot. It’s funny. And it has all these crazy words in it. It’s different than just funny words. Roald Dahl makes them up. My favorite one is whizpopper. That means a big, loud [redacted].”
I loved all these as a little girl as well, and so does my nine year old daughter, who enjoys the escape into weirdness like no other.
So, dad, have you read his autobiography? All I remember is the tonsil chapter…shudder.
You need to read some of his adult short stories. That will knock you out of the rut a bit. They take the twistedness of his children’s stories to a whole new level… Read them in a few months, and you will gain even more appreciation for Mr. Dahl.
Love, love, love this post. We are also knee-deep in Dahl with our six year old. In addition to reading with us, she has been listening to the audio book of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” read by Eric Idle. Based on his reading, she was convinced that the character name is Willy Wonker.
I LOVED the BFG growing up! I mentioned it to some of my co-workers the other day and was shocked that they had never heard of it before. Truly one of my favorites!
My kids LOVED Roald Dahl, still do. Son even asked for his very first book for Christmas one year – a picture book – The Gremlins.
The Twits is my all-time favorite. I read it at many-a “Read to Succeed” days while my kids were in elementary school.
James and the Giant Peach was the favorite at my house growing up – I loved reading it to my brothers. The three of us huddled on the couch with this book is one of my favorite sibling memories.
I just spent the entire train ride to work swooning over this post and taking notes to get some of these books. I kind of forgot that I was waiting for the right time to spring this magical Dahl world onto my soon to be 6 year old son. Your daughter’s descriptions are spot on and took me back to a time when I would be so excited about a book that I almost couldn’t explain the story line. Thanks for the tips (as well as those in the comments)!
So glad you listed these! As much as I love the food discussions on this site, I love the book recommendations! Danny the Champion of the World is one of my all-time favorite children’s books, one I’ve reread as an adult and still loved. So glad you reminded me. I think it’s time to start reading it with my 7 year old daughter!
I sympathize…a little. Your kid’s taste in books could be way worse. (I won’t name names.)
I always did have a soft spot for Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator…call me twisted, but I was enthralled/horrified with those vermicious Knids and their shape-shifting ways.
Awwww I LOVE Rolad Dahl and I can’t wait for my boys (4 and 2) to be old enough for him! We have some books on CD so I might try them this year.
Roald Dahl was a genius. I loved his books when I was growing up and have re-read a couple in recent years and I still love them now. There is no secret why he appeals to kids as he loved all things disgusting and scary and brave and fantastic and unbelievable. I live in the village in Cardiff where Dahl lived as a child and he is considered to be a literary giant here. Quite rightly too.
P.S. I totally recommend About a Boy and Going Solo for parents and bigger kids!
Danny the Champion of the World RULES. And I’m a daughter. Who, ok, might also have daddy issues. Whatever, it RULES.
I love Roald Dahl! I think my favorite is the BFG, but I really enjoyed all of them. I love his adult stories. He surprises you with a lot of new stuff that is great for those of us who miss Roald Dahl, but can’t stand Violet Beauregard any longer.
I adored Roald Dahl when I was younger, and actually just read “Going Solo” last week. I really enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t recommend it for kids – Dahl is about 23 in the book, and while that resonated very much with me (I’m 24) I probably would have found it boring at 8 or 9. “Boy” , however, is fantastic and definitely appealing to kids.
If she loves Dahl I would highly recommend The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket if you haven’t gotten to that yet. Great books, a little dark (age range 9-12), excellent vocabulary building! It uses many complex words and then defines them within the book in context with the story. I loved reading these to my younger brother and cousins when they were growing up.
Maybe when she’s older (or maybe now?) she’ll like BOY, which is the story of Dahl and all the little tricks and crazy things that happened to him when he was young and which inspired his stories. But you probably already knew that, being such a huge Dahl fan. Dahl is also my favorite author, and I am 30.
When she’s older *much* she might like Umbrella Man and his other books like The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. They just have a little more sex–or at least implied sex–and of course stealing and lying and all that jazz.
Um… I love food but I love reading even more. LOVE when we get to know what your kids are reading. Go girls!!!
Not to elongate your Dahl roadtrip any longer, but there is an AWESOME CD of RD himself actually reading several of the books: Charlie & CF, James & GP, Crocodile, Magic Finger. Very well done.
Just bringing this back around to food and my own personal favorite Dahl “Fantastic Mr. Fox” which I would also give a 20 if it were possible. I would have to go back and look at the book but how much fun would it be to put together a dinner that mimics the one in the book? Roast chicken, cider to drink, vegetables… That was the bit that always mesmerized me as a child.
Oh, BFG is my favourite for sure. I do a voice for the BFG that is really hard to describe. I’m a school librarian so I get lots of opportunity! The Twits is also a winner. I’ve read most of his books aloud at various times. You should read “You’re a Bad Man, Mr. Gum” if you haven’t already. It’s hysterical, and it’s also a series if you like it.
Cay, you stole my thunder! I was also going to recommend the audio books read by Dahl. My personal favorite is Dahl reading The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Forget the movie that came out last year, just listen to him read it. I don’t get tired of that.
Our nine-year-old girl is also a huge Dahl fan. BFG is her favorite. We were in an international grocery the other day (with lots of fun and unusual fruits and veggies) and she spotted something that was a dead ringer for a snozcumber!
Your daughter might also enjoy the books by Terry Pratchett written for young people. The Wee Free Men has been a hit around our house, as well as The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. Not exactly the same as Dahl, but some similarly twisted humor. (and, yes, you must get the Wee Free Men on audio as well, read by Stephen Briggs. He handles the accents so well–fantastic for a long car ride).
I love reading about what your family is reading! Abby may also enjoy The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I remember reading it about the time I was plowing through the Dahl library as a kid. (And, I had it in my head that it was written by Dahl until I didn’t see it in your list. Oops!)
I was grateful for my daughter’s second grade teacher to introduce her to such a fun author, and it got her reading. But I was ready to move on after a while! If Dahl’s sense of humor appeals to your kids, try Lemony Snicket next. There are 13 books in the series and my girl has read all 13 books 3 times! She does have a obsessive streak to her!
Oops! I see that Deanne already had the same thought! A Series of Unfortunate Events is a great fun series for kids who like their humor a little dark.
Somehow, Dahl is one of the few authors I missed growing up. I sort of skipped right from Anne of Green Gables to Pet Semetary as a girl, and had to do a lot of back tracking in my later years. As a result, I have a lot of fresh memories of some great “kid” novels which I am soooo looking forward to sharing with my daughter. But she’s three. So there’s been at least a few occasions where I could be caught saying “sweetie, put down Cinderella for a minute. I want to show you a story about a little prince…”
So Dahl goes on my list of authors to… um… prescreen. Delightful!
Please tell me you’ve seen Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes! And please do not skip over the poetry – Dirty Beasts is my favorite.
I highly recommend THE DEATH AND FURTHER ADVENTURES OF SILAS WINTERBOTTOM: THE BODY THIEF by Stephen M. Giles. Wonderful book with some Dahl-like qualities, and perfect for those who love Dahl but need a break from him!
I have an Abbie of my own and we just finished reading her first RD together…The Fantastic Mr. Fox, as part of my book club. She loved it so we’re trying The BFG but she isn’t sold yet. I’m changing the words a little so it isn’t quite as frightening…
have you read his big of poems? Wonderful and twisted –
meant to say book of poems, sorry
a suggestion for the more literal-minded child (i.e., not into harry potter, or c.s. lewis, or, sadly, roald dahl): beverly cleary. E+J are obsessed with henry huggins. Old school and yet SASSY.
Ha! I’m so over Roald Dahl that I skipped this post until now. For us it’s audio as well–my 7 year old listens to about 4 of his titles over and over on her iPod and for about a year it was a constant request in the car, though now banned. Her school play last year: James and the Giant Peach. This year: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Excellent books, but there is no escape!