Amy McCaw and Laura Poole, Cornerstones’ literacy consultants, give their view on some of Roald Dahl’s best loved books.
Every year on Roald Dahl’s birthday, children and adults alike celebrate his bold, brilliant and boundary-pushing work. It’s astonishing to think that James and the Giant Peach, Dahl’s first children’s book, was published in 1961 and yet parents and teachers still delight in sharing his books with children. In recent years, Dahl’s books have continued to form the basis of plays and films, as well as inspiring a new wave of anarchic authors.
One of Dahl’s best-loved tales, The BFG, is still central to popular culture, with Steven Spielberg’s 2016 film version granting yet another generation access to Giant Country. Dahl’s fanciful fusion of weird and wonderful ideas in this story – child-eating giants, dreams kept in jars and breakfast with the Queen of England – are beguiling and memorable. However, it is perhaps Dahl’s mastery of language that makes The BFG such an intriguing read. By breaking a few rules and playing with root words and their affixes, Dahl has gleefully littered his story with a wealth of neologisms, some of which you can now find definitions for in the Oxford English Dictionary! Who doesn’t recognise ‘scrumdiddlyumptious’ as an emphatic synonym for delicious? Dahl reminds us of the potential of words, particularly through his clever use of portmanteaus: the onomatopoeic word ‘swallop’ excellently describes the giants’ revolting eating habits as they swallow and gulp at the same time. Dahl’s ‘gobblefunk’ also has a subversive appeal with the word ‘whizzpop’ offering children and adults a way to break a social taboo (discussing breaking wind) without getting into trouble!
George’s Marvellous Medicine
George’s Marvellous Medicine is the story of a young boy who has an inventive idea to ‘cure’ his Grandma of her horrid behaviour or if that fails, to ‘blow off the top of her head’. The premise of this book is so compelling because it explores the uncomfortable truth that children and adults don’t always get along, and some adults treat children very badly. This makes it especially satisfying when George can outsmart his wicked grandmother, creating a potion that has the shocking result of shrinking her until she vanishes completely. It is this extreme solution that disturbs and delights readers in equal measure, highlighting the potential of children, and that they definitely shouldn’t be underestimated. The book makes it very clear to children that they can achieve great things, and that they should challenge injustice and cruelty.
While The Twits is neither heart-warming nor life-affirming, it has at its core a darkness that children are drawn to and an irresistible revelry in the revolting. Mr Twit’s grotesque habits, “By sticking out his tongue and curling it sideways to explore the hairy jungle around his mouth, he was always able to find a tasty morsel here and there to nibble on”, and the anarchic relationship between Mr and Mrs Twit are at odds with traditional children’s literature. Fully aware that many parents might direct their children towards safer stories with predictably insipid characters, Dahl wickedly dishes out the necessary material to satisfy a child’s appetite for the greedy, violent and disgusting. Indeed, Michael Rosen believes Dahl’s success comes down to his understanding of a child’s dark side and his appreciation that “what children want in literature is the opposite of what they want in life.” Dahl throws down the gauntlet to parents, presenting problems for their children to consider instead of concealing them and paving the way for the likes of Lemony Snicket and David Walliams who favour playfulness over conformity.
Roald Dahl’s The Witches insists right from the start, “This is not a fairy tale. This is about real witches.” Dahl’s victory with this story is the blurring of boundaries between reality and imagination. The nameless narrator tells his cautionary tale, shaking young readers’ trust in adults and their rules to the extent that the existence of witches becomes plausible. After being told that real witches look like ordinary women, we are informed, “For all you know, a witch might be living next door to you”. Dahl even singles out school teachers as potential candidates! This terrifying transgression, however, is thrilling to all readers, with teachers enjoying the suspicious looks their children give them almost as much as the children enjoy imagining their teachers as witches. The mixture of fear and glee Dahl conjures in The Witches continues to haunt many of us who read it as children. Instead of protecting future generations from this fearsome tale, many of us, with a keen sense of mischief, choose to share Dahl’s story, appreciating that the need to feel exhilarated is just as important in childhood as feeling safe.
Fantastic Mr Fox
Fantastic Mr Fox is the deliciously dark tale of a fox who starts a war with three cruel and revolting farmers by stealing their food. The appeal of this book lies in its apparent simplicity, with Dahl’s characteristic wit and macabre qualities, at the same time as raising intriguing moral questions. Mr Fox is the dynamic Robin Hood character, defending his poor family from the merciless farmers. From the farmers’ viewpoint, he’s stealing their livelihood from under their noses. This creates an interesting quandary for the reader, voiced by Badger when he fears that it’s wrong to steal. Mr Fox points out that anyone would steal if their children were starving, and the reader is left to decide where they stand. Whatever your moral viewpoint, we can all learn something from Mr Fox’s boundless optimism and determination, and can take satisfaction in the triumph of the underdog (or fox).
Roald Dahl’s books have a timeless fairytale quality, where good can triumph over evil, and you can achieve anything with self-belief. He has an irresistible way of seeing things from a child’s point of view, pairing unsettling insights with humour and lyrical wordplay. The magnetism of Roald Dahl’s writing is certainly capable of continuing to draw children away from screens and into the magical and rewarding world of books.
Roald Dahl invented many wonderful words, which the BFG described as ‘gobblefunk’. We’ve created free word mats and matching cards. Key Stage 2 children will enjoy working out what the words mean and exploring their often very silly (and sometimes rude) definitions! Can they work out what inspired Roald Dahl to create each word?