Tag Archives: Roald Dahl

George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl

George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl

I can’t find my copy of #134 George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl, so I was thrilled to find a copy when I was in the UK recently. I remember it being one of my childhood favourites. It’s probably my second favourite Dahl book, after Matilda

George’s Marvellous Medicine tells the story of George, who lives with his parents and his very grumpy grandmother on his parents’ farm. One day, as an act of revenge, he decides to replace his grandmother’s medicine with a concoction of his own, with astonishing results.

Fabulous story
I don’t know why I love this book so much. I think it’s because the book is gleeful and joyful throughout. Pretty much everyone in the book – and there aren’t many characters – spends a large part of the story in a state of highly pleased excitement. It’s like reading a successful birthday party, where everyone laughs and dances and enjoys themselves. 

It’s also a quick, fun read, and well illustrated by Quentin Blake. It’s a story about pushing boundaries, crossing the line of polite behaviour, and reaping the unpredictable consequences. The story is imbued with Dahl’s trademark zaniness and wild invention. In this case, it works, in my opinion.

Entirely unsafe
Like all of Dahl’s books, there’s a grim undertone and if you think about some of the things that happen seriously, you’d get a rather different feel than the jaunty rollicking ride Dahl conducts you on.

The thing I found most shocking about the book is that George’s mixture is made of some really lethal ingredients, and yet that’s fine. It has horse medication, anti-freeze and household cleaners in. It’s properly poisonous, and that seems like a terrible example to be setting small children. I’m at that stage where I haven’t been a kid myself for a long while, and yet my friends mostly have toddlers, so I really don’t know how likely a curious 8-year-old is to mimic George’s concoctions. I know I didn’t, but then I wasn’t exactly a whirlwind child.

I really enjoyed reading George’s Marvellous Medicine again. I don’t think I’ve read it since the 1990s, and I probably wouldn’t have reread at all if it weren’t for this challenge. I grumble about quite a lot of books on the Big Read list, but I think it’s worth doing for the new books I try (even if I don’t love them) and the old loves I revisit.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

I really enjoyed #145 James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, and definitely recommend it to readers young and old. It’s one of my preferred Dahl books and has survived an adult reading remarkably well.

James, orphaned in a tragic accident, is sent to live with two cruel aunts. They force the little boy to toil for them, cooking and cleaning and mending and fetching, giving him no time for fun. One day he meets a stranger who gives him a magical gift – and then fabulous things start to happen.

James and friends
Getting rid of the parents is a common starting point for children’s stories – after all, if you’re happy and comfortable at home, there would be less appeal to being the first person to cross an ocean by peach. It does mean that a lot of famous characters from children’s literature come from really abusive homes, and James is no exception.

The book was published in 1961, when hitting children was a standard form of correction or punishment, and Dahl wrote about his own experiences of being beaten at school in his autobiography, Boy. So I don’t imagine he intended James’ home life to be quite as grim as it looks to modern eyes – and it’s pretty grim.

That said, Dahl has a knack for making the ordinary extraordinary and visa versa, so he glosses over the grim opening with a few jokes and some quirky songs, then moves on to the exciting bits. And the exciting bits are definitely good fun, although a bit odd and macabre in places, as all of Dahl’s books are.

The Roald Dahl collection
I’ve been reading a lot of Roald Dahl novels lately as there are 9 on the Big Read list and I’ve noticed a few things. First, the TV or film adaptions are usually, if not outright dreadful, then rather worse than the books. Which is sort of odd, as the books tend to be beautifully illustrated and quirky in a very visual way. Perhaps it’s impossible to transfer. That said, the musical version of Matilda which is out in London is excellent.

Second, although Dahl’s books were written across several decades, he doesn’t seem to have changed much as a writer, or altered the settings in his novels. You can read James and the Giant Peach (1961) and then Matilda (1988) and, if you didn’t know the dates they were published, it would be easy to believe that Dahl had waited 27 days between writing them, not 27 years.

Third, I can’t tell whether Dahl didn’t know certain things about the natural world or just didn’t care. Perhaps it’s a mix. In any case, in James, people get eaten up (entirely and suddenly) by an angry rhino, seagulls fly nicely without crapping everywhere and don’t eat peaches and a few other odd things occur. I don’t think it really matters, but I do get a little jolt out of the story whenever something fairly ordinary (like a seagull) acts in a way which seems completely out of character.

Finally, while I won’t say I loved them all, I can say that I’m thoroughly impressed with Dahl as a writer. Each book is distinct and different, with its own set of quirky characters, wild new words and bizarre circumstances. It’s very impressive and well worth a read.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The BFG by Roald Dahl

The BFG by Roald Dahl

Deservedly famous, #56 The BFG by Roald Dahl is another childhood favourite of mine, and I enjoyed rereading my battered old copy for this challenge.

BFG stands for Big, Friendly Giant. Sophie, an orphan, sees this 24-foot-tall man sneaking around her village one night, and he snatches her to prevent her telling the world what she’s seen. When Sophie discovers that the other giants are the opposite of friendly – they eat people by the handful – the two of them hatch a plot to bring them to justice.

More than words
Dahl has a way with words, and The BFG is packed with new inventions, words whose meanings are usually obvious but which aren’t found in any dictionary. It’s a masterpiece of gymnastic language, and is worth reading as an example of a living language, and how expressing yourself well can be more important than correct spelling or grammar.

That said, there’s more to the book than words and if you’re going to read The BFG, get an edition with the Quentin Blake illustrations. They are a critical part of the book, in my opinion. The illustrations are simple line drawings in Blake’s usual, sketchy style and they bring the characters to life. They also pad out the book, and transform it from a pure reading experience to something more mixed-media.

I may be a little biased though – the picture of the BFG always reminded me of my Granddad. Although he wasn’t 24-foot-tall he was tall (particularly from a child’s point of view) with big hands you could lose yours in, a similarly slender frame, strong nose and big ears. And a lovely smile. Like the BFG, he also had mysterious powers and cared very much for a small, not particularly special, girl.

A grown up’s eyes
I read all the Roald Dahl books I could get my hands on when I was a kid, and yet only really liked about half of them. Matilda was probably my all-time favourite, and Ioved The BFG but remember hating The Twits and being too scared to finish The Witches the first time I read it, age about 8. 

It’s interesting reading them again as an adult as the books – even the ones I still enjoyed – really aren’t that nice. Dahl has a surprising amount in common with Stephen King in that when his books are good, they’re very good – the best ones are finely crafted portrayals of people in extreme and usually gory situations – and when they’re bad they are horrid.

In both cases, the stories are like fairy tales in the sense that “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” – a quote the internet attributes to GK Chesterton, but a sentiment I remember from a Pratchett book, perhaps Witches Abroad or Hogfather.

Dahl expresses anti-adult sentiments quite regularly in his books. He’s in the class of children’s authors who suggest that adults are, typically a bit dull, talking about mortgages and not getting it but more often than not are stupid or untrustworthy. It’s probably a reaction to the Blyton style, where authority figures abound, but it’s not quite a modern sentiment – it suggests that children shouldn’t trust grown ups, even their own parents, and shouldn’t expect to have fun with them. Although, not all grown ups in his works are like this – there are exceptions, like Danny’s father in Danny The Champion of the World. And certainly, it’s not a terrible message to give that not all grown ups are smart, trustworthy or have your best interests at heart.

The BFG is easy to read, good fun and beautifully, effectively, illustrated so it’s ideal for younger readers and those beginning to read on their own. However, there are monsters in this book. The unfriendly giants eat human beings, joyfully, and gather them by stealing them from their beds at night. Somehow, the world has remained oblivious to the scale of these disappearances through the centuries. Further, giants aren’t born – they just appear – so there’s no real reason to suppose that dealing with them once in a time which is clearly Long Ago to modern readers, (the Queen of England is a young woman, for one thing) is enough to stop the problem for good. Waking up in the middle of the night, it can be hard – even as an adult – to be absolutely certain that monsters aren’t real and your bad dreams aren’t prophetic, so this is simply a note of caution as the book is generally wonderful, but is, in a certain sense, junior horror.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl

Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl

Back in Cambridge for a few days, one of my first stops was the library and I was thrilled to find #177 Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl on the shelves. While I’ve tried to keep all the books I ever loved (not the most sensible of projects) we don’t have a copy of this one.

Fantastic Mr Fox is the story of a family of foxes who live on a hill. At the bottom of the hill are three big farms, and every night Mr Fox goes out to steal a hen or goose or duck from one of the farms to feed his family. Unsurprisingly, the farmers object, and as the story starts they’ve decided to do something about this theft.

I loved the book as a kid and really enjoyed rereading it. I didn’t enjoy the recent film as much, but it does have the voice of George Clooney in it, which may make it more appealing to some.

Entirely (un)natural
All books with talking animals present an odd, unnatural view of nature – it’s inevitable as animal societies don’t work in polite, civilized ways and accuracy wouldn’t fit the fairy tale. One thing I always wonder about is how the author decided which animals can talk and which can’t. Broadly speaking, if it can talk, it’s a friend, not food, to slightly misquote the sharks in Finding Nemo. So I can understand why foxes could talk to badgers but the chickens don’t talk (you have to read The Fox Busters by Dick King-Smith for their side of this story) – but why do foxes talk to rabbits? rats? Foxes eat rabbits – they’re one of the threats in Watership Down – but in Fantastic Mr Fox mammals are not on the menu.

I’m clearly over-thinking this, but I do find it interesting, particularly when two natural enemies team up. In The Princess and the Frog, the frog tries to eat a bug, who immediately becomes a friend and rescuer. Perhaps animals are meant to represent our better selves, but I’d like a little more Darwinian caution.

A life of crime
Criminal behaviour is often rewarded in children’s stories, so Mr Fox’s life of crime doesn’t really stand out. I do wonder how well the story would have gone down with children who have chickens as pets or farm animals – foxes can do an immense amount of damage if they get into a coop, while Mr Fox is quite restrained.

The book is also definitely about Mr Fox – it’s his crimes and his battle with the farmer that put others in danger. One thing I did like about the movie was that Mrs Fox (no other name given in either text, very annoying) was also a sneak-thief and quite as good as her husband. She seems to be taking a few years out the raise the cubs, rather than be entirely dependent – a little more natural, perhaps.

While I enjoyed the trip down memory lane, and do recommend Fantastic Mr Fox, it reminded me that there’s another author I should be recommending and rereading – Dick King-Smith. Writing for children, he published dozens of books between 1978 and 2001. He’s best known for The Sheep-Pig which was made into the film Babe, but I don’t think it’s his best work. I loved The Fox Busters (about three female chickens defending their family from foxes), Harry’s Mad (about a boy and an incredibly intelligent parrot), Tumbleweed (about a knight and the witch who rescues him) and Magnus Powermouse (catchphrase: “nasty cat, bite you” still in use in our family).

One of the sad things about the list is that so many truly excellent and well-loved authors are missing – it’s inevitable, but I’m a little shocked that Dick King-Smith and Diana Wynne Jones didn’t rate at all, to name just two of my best-loved authors.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Twits by Roald Dahl

The Twits by Roald Dahl

In at #81 The Twits tells the tale of two decidedly unpleasant people who meet a sticky – but poetically just – end. It’s another one of Dahl’s nasty morality tales, the Victorian tradition updated. In this case, the Twits are smelly, cruel to animals and each other, and deserve what they get. The book is brutish and short – I remember disliking it as a child, personally, but there’s nothing in it worse than a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

Against beards
A page in the back of the edition I read mentioned that The Twits started life as a note from Dahl to himself reading ‘do something against beards’. Apparently, he didn’t like beards and certainly his author photo is clean-shaven. The beginning of The Twits includes a diatribe against beards – bearded people, it seems, are necessarily dirty and therefore unpleasant and smelly.

These might be good traits for a villain – and the Twits are villainous indeed, although hampered by lack of imagination – but aren’t good traits in a parent, and many parents have beards. In fact, despite Dahl’s assertions, it seems entirely possible to have a beard and keep it clean, neat and pleasant, making the rant odd and rendering the whole book a bit suspect, I thought, as the narrator has clearly proved himself unreliable early on.

On beauty
Dahl’s villains are always clearly marked, and it’s interesting to see how he does this. In The Twits, he explains that Mrs Twit started out fairly pleasant looking, but years of thinking ugly thoughts made her ugly. While this is intended, I imagine, to encourage children to think and act appropriately, tempting them with the carrot/stick of beauty/ugliness, I do wonder if it would make kids assume that ugly old people are villains? It’s a logical conclusion, and one reinforced by so many popular tropes, but hardly accurate.

Marking villains physically is problematic if you think about it, but there are so many caricatures and stereotypes that it’s easy to do. Dahl does it in most of his books – the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the farmers in Fantastic Mr Fox… In Matilda the Trunchbull, evil headmistress, is marked as a villain by her height, muscle and unfeminine hairstyle and clothes. She’s so unfeminine, it seems, that the recent musical version cast a man in the role. (Which, incidentally, I think is a crying shame: there are few enough parts for women who don’t fit the delicate-and-pretty-heroine model as it is and the Trunchbull is a great part.)

I didn’t much care for The Twits, but it was a quick read and I can see why it might appeal to some people. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a fan of grotesque literature, and this is grotesque. The book is short, and the illustrations are lovely – and I did enjoy the escape of Mugwump the monkey and his family – so your mileage may vary.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Another one of my own childhood favourites, my battered copy of #35 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has the cover line ‘The best-loved children’s book ever!’ It may even have been true before that boy wizard turned up but looks a little ironic when it’s not even top 10 in its home country.

That said, Charlie is still good fun, and I enjoyed rereading it. It’s a very quick read and suitable for kids just starting to read on their own.

Surprisingly preachy
It’s not news that people writing for children tend to try to get a message across, or that they can be very obvious and heavy-handed about it, but I honestly thought Dahl was different. Matilda was a paen to creative naughtiness and Danny involved breaking the law. Charlie, marked down in the list of characters as ‘The hero’ does absolutely nothing heroic. He suffers bravely at the beginning, and then barely speaks as the four so-called horrible, disgusting children, each with their signature vice, is dealt with in a poetically just way.

It’s interesting to see which vices are considered worth punishing and what the punishments are: extreme, cartoon-style violence which – if this were anything like a real world – would physically and mentally scar the children for life.

The attack on TV is particularly interesting as it suggests encouraging kids to read instead. Authors tend to favour reading as an activity for obvious reasons, but it’s an interesting reversal from pre-TV stories where reading – especially novels and fairy tales – is seen as dangerous and lazy.

A delectable world
The strength of the book – and its adaptions – may be the world rather than the characters. Willy Wonka himself isn’t particularly likeable, and Charlie is so invisible that it’s easy to imagine yourself exploring the fabulous factory without an intermediary. Charlie never does anything you wouldn’t do – because he never really does anything at all – leaving the reader free to enjoy the candy.

And the world is undeniably fabulous, packed with wordplay brought to life – from the square sweets which look round to Butterscotch and Buttergin (no Butterbeer though).

Racism and post-publication editing
The Oompa-Loompas in the 1971 film have been called a racist caricature and I was curious to see what they’re like in the book. In my book, they aren’t described as hailing from darkest Africa  – although their land is jungled – and the only physical description (apart from size) we get is this: “…beautiful white teeth. His skin was rosy-white, his long hair was golden-brown…”. So, I thought: not racist.

Except that, it seems that this may be due the age of my edition: if I had an earlier one, the Oompa-Loompas might have been black and Dahl changed it for a later edition after, shall we say, feedback. I cite the link for reference and certainly don’t agree with the author, Cassandra Pierce, entirely – for example, she says: “Since Dahl seems to have been writing in [the Victorian] tradition, it is unreasonable to fault him for not realizing the impact it would have on a modern audience” which I think is a poor apology for a very smart person. It is hardly unreasonable to ‘fault’ someone for failing to realise that the rules of their society haven’t changed, however immersed they’ve gotten into another world. For example, no matter how long you’ve been playing GTA for, carjacking is not a legitimate way to get a Ferrari outside the game.

I’m actually glad Dahl changed the book, although I would have preferred he left a note indicating what he’d done and why. Post-publication editing is a big deal now, with blogs and ebooks letting authors change their words after they’ve been read, and it poses a number of challenges for writer and reader. Changing your mind after feedback; admitting you were wrong; changing your behaviour or language when you hurt someone accidentally – all these are good, hard things to do and a better role model for kids than poor Charlie who does nothing but get lucky.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Danny The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

Danny The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Another children’s book, #132 is the story of a boy and his father and a great caper. The main character is Danny and The Champion of the World is the title his father gives him when he has a brilliant idea which they then put to the test.

Quentin Blake did the illustrations for Danny and, as I mentioned when I reviewed Matilda, his beautiful drawings add an extra layer to the story and help the reader picture each scene as they go along.

A criminal mind
The caper involves a crime – but one which is fairly rare and archaic, at least in the UK, so not one the reader is likely to have been a victim of. The crime is accepted and practised by most of the secondary characters in the book, including the local policeman, and the victim is an unpleasant character, all of which frames the criminal activity and makes it seem very light hearted and a positive act of benefit to the community.

It’s interesting, not because it’s unusual – action heroes, even in kids’ books, steal stuff and kill people all the time – but because the characters talk about it being illegal and because it’s a real-world scenario. Danny and his father aren’t spies on the run from a shadowy foreign government – they’re a fairly ordinary family and they have no special powers. And yet, between going to school and going to work, Dahl sends them out to commit a crime, and the audience cheers them on.

The moral lesson – if one can be drawn – is probably the same as in most of Dahl’s books: revenge is best served dramatically.

Introducing the BFG
Early on, Danny’s father tells him the story of where dreams come from – and he describes the Big Friendly Giant who is one of Dahl’s best-known and best-loved (#56 on the Big Read list) characters.  Danny was published in 1975 but readers didn’t find out the rest of the BFG’s story until 1982. The description matches so well – it’s interesting to see that this odd, lovely idea was already well formed in Dahls’ head years before The BFG was published.

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Matilda by Roald Dahl

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

One of my childhood favourites, Matilda, is #74 on the list. I’m visiting my parents this week, so I’ve been able to read the actual copy which I remember so well from when I was small.

A book about reading
The story of Matilda, like most of Roald Dahl’s novels, is that of a small powerless person finding a reserve within themselves and standing up to a bully but the book is about reading. Matilda is amazing and she reads a lot. She reads a lot because she is amazing and she is amazing because she reads so much. By the time she is five, we are told, she has read:

Nicholas Nickleby
Oliver Twist
Jane Eyre
Pride and Prejudice
Tess of the d’Urbervilles 
Gone to Earth (by Mary Webb)
The Invisible Man
The Old Man and the Sea
The Sound and the Fury (Faulkner)
The Grapes of Wrath
The Good Companions (by JB Priestley)
Brighton Rock (by Graham Greene)
and Animal Farm

It’s an impressive list for any child but as it comes on about page 18 of the book, I think it’s more than just exposition: Roald Dahl is trying to get kids to read. He’s giving them a list of books which he thinks are worth reading – and presumably appropriate for small children – and a hero who has read them all.

The list – and it’s presented as a list in the book – has a significant crossover with the Big Read list, which confirms that these are books which Britons think are generally worthwhile.

The odd thing is that I read a lot as a child, so I read Matilda often enough that I can still quote the climactic scene more or less verbatim, but I don’t remember this list. In fact, if you’d shown me the list in any other context I would swear that I had never seen the titles Gone to Earth or The Good Companions before in my life.

This is interesting as well, because it suggests to me that the way to get kids to read is to write great stories, which Dahl does, rather than tell them to read the great stories of your past. I’m sure that’s harder though, so I’m not surprised that Dahl hedged his bets!

A great book for kids
I was surprised to learn that Matilda was first published in 1988. I was five that year, like Matilda is in the book, but I don’t remember ever not having this book on our shelves. I do have a couple of qualms rereading it now – for example, fat or ugly characters are all either bad or disgusting, which is unfortunately all too common – but I think that its strengths outweigh them.

The cast of Matilda is almost exclusively female – the hero, the main villain, the princess to be rescued, the sidekick are all women or girls. It’s an unusual line-up, to have a novel which is so adventurous and female-dominated, which is one reason I’d recommend the book to kids of all ages (girls and boys).

We went to see the musical version of Matilda in London a few weeks ago, and I was surprised by how vividly I remembered the story. I had a very clear image of what Matilda and several of the other characters should look like, how they should move and speak.

These images, it turns out, come from the beautiful and telling drawings done for the novel by Quentin Blake. There are a lot more pictures in the book than I remembered, which makes it a good choice for less confident readers or to read aloud.