100 years on, Roald Dahl isn’t just for kiddles and chiddlers
When Roald Dahl’s Matilda said, “Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog,” she wasn’t referring to the author, but she might as well have been. This was his secret to writing children’s stories.
Dahl gets away with dark subject matter in his books through outrageous exaggeration and comedy. Miss Trunchbull isn’t simply a nasty headmistress; she uses her Olympian hammer-throwing skills to grab hold of a child’s pigtail, lift her off the ground, swing her around and around and throw her straight over a fence into the sky. Dahl pulls off a lot in his stories, and we love it.
I recall being enchanted as a child by Charlie’s adventures in the chocolate factory, the Vermicious Knid creatures and the first bite James took from the giant peach. I remember Dahl’s inventive use of language (“scrumdiddlyumptious”) and Quentin Blake’s illustrations.
With Dahl’s children’s books, fantasy is always just around the corner. James’s parents step out to London to do a bit of shopping and get eaten by a rhinoceros. Nasty aunts get squished, flat as paper dolls, by a massive rolling peach. Giants visit boarding schools at night to snatch little children asleep in their beds and devour them “by the bundle.”
But it was only when I read his short story for adults, “Lamb to the Slaughter,” that I realized Dahl himself was a twisted man — which gave me a new appreciation for his children’s fiction.
Dahl wasn’t afraid to write narratives that made us uncomfortable as adults. An old man with mildewed breath hands James a bag of small, trembling green crystals and tells him to run home, mix them in a glass of water and drink it all down. James sprints off to do so, and the responsible adult inside me screams, “No!” Luckily, he trips and spills the contents.
The villains in Dahl’s stories are larger-than-life bad, and through this, the author discloses his deep distrust of adults and their ideas about what “civilizing” children entails. He sides with the children, always, and they are given possession of an internal strength, resourcefulness and intelligence, often bordering on genius. Even if the circumstances in the children’s lives are stacked against them, they use their powers to triumph over adversity.
As cruel as many of Dahl’s adult characters can be, the caring ones in his books are unaffectedly real and gentle. He seems to know that the child reader wants more than anything to be acknowledged, recognized and loved. And Dahl’s good adults — Miss Honey, the Big Friendly Giant (BFG), Charlie’s deeply-loving-but-poor family — provide this. They too may be exaggerated, but they satisfy readers of all ages in a genuine and heartwarming way.
After all, we know that it’s not just the kiddles and chiddlers who like reading Dahl’s books.
Sandra Chang-Kredl is an assistant professor in Concordia's Department of Education.