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.
“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…
“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.
“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].”