Thursday, 13 September 2012

Happy Roald Dahl Day!

Today, September 13th, is officially 'Roald Dahl Day' and ReadItDaddy would be remiss if we didn't at least pass comment on the man who has become synonymous with children's books, yet had a whole darker 'adults only' side that seldom gets explored.

It goes without saying that my first introduction to Roald Dahl's work was "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", which by rights should pretty much be any kid's introduction to Dahl. As a book-hungry 5 year old, I remember it was Dahl's description of the various chocolate and sweet concoctions of Willy Wonka that made me practically drown in my own saliva while our brilliant primary school teacher, Miss Cox, read passages of the book and used them to trigger classroom activities. We made Willy Wonka outfits, we dressed as oompah loompahs, we set up our own sweet factory and we made marzipan sweets and treats to 'sell' in it.

Using books as a trigger for activities was Miss Cox's stock-in-trade and I always remember her being an astonishing artist as well as teacher.

Back to Dahl though and like any heroic figure, there are always those who want to chip away at his foibles and primarily draw attention to his hard drinking, womanising and fairly victorian attitudes that were left at the door when he'd enter his writing shed and pen something new.

Dahl's secret of being a massive hit with kids is that he uses the two most powerful 'weapons' a children's author can use in their books. Front and centre, the underdog children, the heroes of his novels, are easily identifiable to children of all ages. George and his Marvellous medicine and of course Charlie Bucket are kids that children of the 70s could have identified with and bonded with very easily. Even contemporary audiences will love the fact that these kids triumph over adversity, and often show adults up to be a little bit too clever (or stupid) for their own good. The other weapon Dahl uses is the idea of subversion. Some (if not most) of Dahl's child heroes often resort to rather unsavoury practices in order to win the day. Kids absolutely voraciously consume any books that show kids being 'naughty' even if they do get their comeuppance in the end. Dahl's heroes are naughty but with a purpose. So they still manage to win favour with parents too.

I found it particularly galling in one recent article to see Dahl compared directly to EL James (I don't need to tell you she's the 50 Shades of Grey author, right?) I can see no comparison, not even in book sales really. Dahl's children's fiction was sublime, descriptive and rich. Not always politically correct but always engaging and interesting (we'll let Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator slide, it's the only Dahl children's book I find to be a complete chore - which is surprising given its predecessor).

Reading Dahl's rather fantastic (or should that be fantasised) self-penned biographies shows how his stories were directly affected by his own experiences in war and peacetime, and the sometimes grotesque characters he constructed came from the richest source possible - real people he'd met or knew. Good solid characters that other authors would die for.

All in all, I still think 'James and the Giant Peach' is my favourite Dahl book, with 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' following a close second, and I am happy to see an entire day devoted to celebrating one of our national literary treasures. I just wish the celebrations could happen without the inevitable dirt-digging by the popular press.