September 13 marks what would have been the 100th birthday of celebrated British author Roald Dahl. Dahl is famous for children’s classics such as Matilda, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and The BFG, which was recently adapted for film by Steven Spielberg and released this summer.
Dahl began writing for children in 1960, after establishing himself as a writer of often dark and grisly adult stories. Some say that becoming a father motivated his foray into storytelling for children. His daughter Lucy has shared vivid accounts of her father’s nightly bedtime visits, where he would sit perched on the edge of the bed telling engaging stories about characters that would eventually come to life in his beloved children’s books. The BFG (or “Big, Friendly Giant”) was a favorite, and Dahl would follow up his storytelling about that whimsical and gentle character by slipping outside their home, climbing a ladder to the children’s bedroom window, and gently pushing a horn through its opening to blow his children their nightly dreams. The BFG does much of the same with his magical horn in Dahl’s popular book, which has graced the New York Times bestsellers list.
Dahl believed that children deserved stories to unleash the power of their imagination, and he answered that by bringing to life captivating tales rich with humor, vibrant (and occasionally zany) language, and compelling characters who have stood the test of time. More than 200 million Dahl books — in 58 languages — have been sold worldwide, with more than 40 million in print in the U.S. alone.
Many of his stories also easily leapt off the page to grace stage and screen. Matilda was released as a major motion picture 20 years ago and is now a musical appearing on Broadway through Jan. 1 and throughout the U.S. via a national tour. The tour swung through Boston earlier this year and will next visit New England via Providence in May 2017. (Matilda was the last of Dahl’s children’s books, published two years before his death in 1990.) Recent news that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will also open on Broadway in Spring 2017 has garnered global excitement.
“If you look at the 20th Century, you have to say that Dahl is one of the great writers for children,” said Anita Silvey, author of 100 Best Books for Children and Everything I Need To Know I Learned From A Children’s Book. “Dahl was a remarkable storyteller and absolutely understood his audience and how to write for them. He was a master plotter, then added to it these eccentric, memorable, and quirky characters that children wanted to get to know and come back to again and again. This combination seems to have resonated with children over the years. Dahl simply had the capacity to create a great story that you wanted to read from beginning to end.”
A number of his stories feature child characters who are challenged by bleak and oppressive life circumstances and are at the mercy of corrupt authority figures. There is an uncomfortable darkness in the way Dahl describes their trials and oppressors, perhaps a nod to memories of his own troubled childhood. Magic comes, however, when the put-upon child characters demonstrate strength, courage, and smarts beyond their years to conquer the parents, aunts, teachers, principals, etc. who mistreated them.
“Dahl believed that children were champions of good and would always triumph over adversity,” said Eileen Bishop Kreit, president and publisher of Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers, one of the leading children’s book publishers in the U.S. “He reminds children that they are smart, strong, and capable, and have the power to triumph. I think that’s what makes Dahl’s stories so lasting and helps children connect to them in such a unique way. Children become heroes of their own stories in against-the-odds circumstances.”
And these stories unfold in real-world settings that are tangible for readers, all the while pushing the boundaries of reality and dancing around the edges of fantasy. In Dahl’s non-fiction book BOY: Tales of Childhood, he recounts his life experience as a taster for chocolate manufacturer Cadbury. He and the boys in his house would periodically receive a cardboard box filled with bars of Cadbury chocolate, which they had to taste, rate, and share why each was liked or disliked. Dahl has acknowledged how this experience led him to envision the elaborate inventing rooms used by large chocolate companies to create their masterpieces. About 35 years later, the wacky and whimsical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was born, and readers came to know and love young Charlie Bucket and his roller coaster of adventures with the now iconic Golden Ticket.
Dahl’s magical stories jumped off the page and into the hearts and minds of readers with the support of captivating illustrations. Today, his children’s work is best known as illustrated by British artist Sir Quentin Blake. (American Nancy Ekholm Burkert provided art for some of Dahl’s early work.) Once Blake and Dahl were paired up, Dahl knew that he and his children’s work had met their match.
“Blake’s work is inseparable from Dahl’s and definitely heightened the appeal of it,” noted Megan Lambert, senior lecturer in children’s literature at Simmons College. “Blake’s illustrations are so expressive and dynamic, and their expressiveness visually is a great match for the kind of over-the-top humor and playfulness of the writing that Dahl offers.”
While Dahl’s works are certainly worthy of great celebration, they have not escaped criticism. Adult critics have been dismissive or hostile most of Dahl’s career, said author Silvey, even while children wholeheartedly embraced his stories. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was Dahl’s most controversial work, and his original, seemingly racist characterization of the Oompa-Loompas attracted the most ire. Years later, Dahl tweaked the description of the characters to respond to the criticism and changing societal values and expectations.
Passages in some of Dahl’s books may still cause adults to pause while reading them with children. Therein lies teaching moments. Lambert suggests that “we can look at [these books] for how they reflect culture, and we can embrace the things we find that have staying power and that we want to keep in our culture. Then there will be criticisms of things that we don’t want to perpetuate. Books are a product of a human mind, as well as a culture, a time, and a place. We can look at books not just for stories, but for what they tell us about when and where they were produced. It’s important to give children context for the stories they read and allow for conversation to help them engage critically with a text.”
Silvey considers Dahl one writer that parents should be sure to share with their children: “They will have very good memories of that for years to come, and it’s a great way to create a wonderful bond. When I wrote Everything I Needed To Know I Learned From A Children’s Book, I found while interviewing people that they always remembered the person who had shared favorite books with them. Sometimes they had forgotten the authors, but they always knew who had put a certain book in their hands or who had read it to them. One of the reasons to read and share Dahl is because he is an author who generates those kinds of positive memories.”
And adult nostalgia for Dahl’s exaggerated and exhilarating characters and storylines is likely playing its part in supporting the longevity of his work and exposing new generations of children to his artistry. And what better occasion for adults to introduce children to their childhood favorites from Roald Dahl than during the ongoing worldwide celebration of his 100th year, spearheaded by the Roald Dahl Literary Estate and Penguin Young Readers (see events below).
To honor the celebration and Dahl’s birth month, on Sept. 6 Penguin Young Readers is releasing new collectible hardcover editions of Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and James and the Giant Peach. Additionally, Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother, a collection of personal letters, will be on sale from Blue Rider Press, and Oxford University Press will publish a dictionary for children aged 8+ that celebrates the way Dahl used language and created engaging additions to it. The dictionary will feature full-color illustrations by Sir Quentin Blake.
Families can visit roalddahl.com/usa for additional details about the Roald Dahl 100 celebration and activities through year’s end. A percentage of proceeds from some of the Roald Dahl 100 events in September will be donated to Partners in Health (pih.org), a charity co-founded by Dahl’s daughter Ophelia to bring high-quality health care to poor communities in 10 countries.
September celebrations include:
The Roald Dahl Splendiferous Showdown: Education and media organization Story Pirates (storypirates.org), in partnership with Penguin Young Readers and the Roald Dahl Literary Estate, will visit schools and libraries across the country with an interactive live trivia show inspired by the storytelling genius of Roald Dahl. The tour kicks off at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst (carlemuseum.org) on Sept. 12 and runs through the end of the month.
Wondercrump Weekend: During the weekend of Sept. 16, libraries, bookshops, eateries, and public places in the U.S. and across the world will host fun-filled parties celebrating Dahl’s 100th birthday. Party pack activities are available for download at RoaldDahl.com/party.
Dahlicious Delights: Dessert companies across the country will sell sweet treats inspired by Roald Dahl’s books during September. Local participants include Flour Bakery, J.P. Licks, and Union Square Donuts in Boston.
And the celebrating continues in November and December:
Happy Dahlidays Sweepstakes: Penguin Young Readers will launch a sweepstakes to give fans an opportunity to enter and win Roald Dahl books, tote bags, musical soundtracks and more.