Why Roald Dahl still catches our imaginations.
This Friday (13th September 2019), people across the world will be celebrating the life and work of Roald Dahl. Fifty-eight years after the release of his first children’s novel (James and the Giant Peach), and twenty-nine years from the release of his last (Esio Trot), new readers and older fans alike continue to delight in his writing. Why have his characters, stories and poems remained such a fixture of our reading? How do words crafted in a little hut at the bottom of a family garden still ignite imaginations all these years later? Why is it so natural for us, as adults and teachers, to want to pass him on?
For me, it starts with the language. I’ve always loved words, and Dahl certainly knew how to make them crackle into life. Often his language took me beyond the simple meaning of the words and somehow helped me to experience what was being described. Take the name of Willy Wonka’s most famous chocolate bar: the Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight. Read that name through a few times and tell me you can’t feel a bit of something sweet sticking to your teeth!
A myriad of created words (what he called ‘gobblefunk’) can be found across his work, and what a pleasure they are to read. ‘Scrumdiddlyumptious’ means that something is extremely delicious, and doesn’t it convey the lip-smacking joy that comes from great food? If you are ‘bopmuggered’, then you’re caught in a less-than-favourable situation. You can almost hear the realisation fade into resignation as you move through the word!
I remember helping with a lesson once where children had to fill the gaps in a poem. They had to create entirely new words which inspired the emotions they wanted readers to feel. One boy, who didn’t find reading or writing the easiest, came alive in that lesson because he was finally free to use words without rules. He could play around with sounds and bend things together to spark sensations and emotions in a reader, without worrying that he was going to get it wrong. I hope that lesson revealed something very fundamental about writing to him: that words were his to use and play with to stir things in people. They were not just things he had to struggle with in order to get something ‘right’. I think Dahl’s work pours out this revelation to children (and adults!) from every page.
What was it that Dahl used this power of language to evoke in his readers? There are many answers to that question, and they all help to explain why his stories are pounced upon by generation after generation of young readers. However, for the sake of space and time I’ll write about just one that has stood out to me and those who I’ve discussed Roald Dahl with this week: his stories show the triumph of unexpected heroes over enemies who embody common childhood worries. It’s no wonder children love them!
In The BFG, the terrors of bad dreams, monsters and loneliness are overcome by a new friendship between a picked-on giant and an orphaned girl. In The Twits, the trapped and mistreated Muggle-Wumps vanquish a pair of vindictive bullies. Insecurities about possessions and popularity are challenged as Charlie Bucket becomes Willy Wonka’s successor in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Every child experiences anxieties in one form or another, but Dahl’s stories take those fears and show them defeated at the hands of characters who at first glance appear too small to stand a chance. There’s something very powerful about that.
I’ll leave you with a quotation from ‘Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf’, where a small girl is confronted by a set of snapping jaws and decides to make her stand. I’ll claim I’ve chosen it because it illustrates my point (it does, I think), but really, it’s here because it was one of my favourite lines growing up and I can still recite it to this day.
The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head,
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.
It’s funny. It’s shocking. It’s written so well it sticks in your mind. In one hilarious twist the fearful villain lies dead and the meant-to-be victim has herself a brand new coat. That’s the magic of Roald Dahl, and why we love to pass him on. Enjoy celebrating him this Friday!
If you feel inspired to do something to mark the day in class this Friday, why not have a look through our Roald Dahl resources? You can find them here. If you have any epic celebrations planned, some thoughts on what Roald Dahl offers to teachers and pupils, or a story of how his work has impacted you, please tell us all about it in the comments below!