Happy Roald Dahl Day!
There can be few people reading this who didn’t grow up with Roald Dahl. Show me someone who doesn’t smile when they see a Quentin Blake illustration, and I’ll show you someone who had a deprived childhood. Dahl was our version of height marks pencilled on the wall; you knew you were growing up when you graduated from Esio Trot to The Witches, and getting older still when you picked up a collection of his short stories for the first time. Even my first published work (a not-particularly-good poem in an anthology for Oxfordshire primary schools) was based on George’s Marvellous Medicine.
With such an incredible back catalogue, picking my top Dahl titles to celebrate today wasn’t easy. But I persevered – and here’s the result!
1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
It’s one of the obvious choices, but that’s for good reasons. Who didn’t want to visit Wonka’s chocolate factory, regardless of the possibility of being shrunk or turning into a giant blueberry. And who hasn’t wanted to try a Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight (as Roald Dahl intended it to taste, rather than the versions you can buy now)? Then there’s Grandpa Jo – possibly the best fictional Grandparent out there. While Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator wasn’t quite good enough to make it on here, I have to mention the Vermicious Knids, which managed to be fascinating, and yet terrifying at the same time (I think I just liked that they spelt out words – well, one word (SCRAM)…). Yes, me and my sweet tooth will always have a soft spot for Charlie.
2. The Great Automatic Grammatizor and Other Stories
Choosing between the Skin collection of short stories and this was a tough call – especially because Lamb To The Slaughter in the former is hideously brilliant. But eventually my sentimental feelings for The Great Automatic Grammatizor won out, it being my first introduction to Dahl’s sinister short story collections. As with Lamb to the Slaughter, I remember having to read The Landlady twice, disbelieving that the grotesque conclusion I thought it had come to really could have been the ending (it was). And The Great Automatic Grammatizor was certainly a more disturbing take on being an author (maybe that’s what turned me onto publishing instead of writing…). But possibly what I love most about Dahl’s short stories in general is how they are just like versions of his books for children – often witty, always imaginative and with a dark, gritty twist to the tale. Returning to your childhood favourites after reading these is always an interesting experience, with the more macabre, less innocent aspects of his writing more apparent. So if you’re looking to celebrate Roald Dahl in a more ‘grown-up’ fashion this year, you can do little wrong by turning to this brilliant collection.
3. The Witches
I actually saw The Witches before I read it. The transformation scenes – the women into witches, the boy into a mouse – gave me nightmares for weeks. And even now I can picture scenes almost as clearly as when I was first introduced to the film.
I must have been an odd child; despite the book causing my imagination to produce images of witches even worse than the film could manage, it was still one of my childhood favourites. It was just so different, so much more overtly horrific, than anything else we were allowed to read – even the intentional horror of the Goosebumps series couldn’t really compare. And there’s not even a predictable, properly happy ending, with the boy remaining a mouse. Oh, and also – the Grandma comes a pretty close second to Grandpa Jo for the best fictional Grandparent award!
I have a pretty wonderful family, and I’m certainly not telekenetic or a genius, but there’s something about Matilda I identify with. I think it’s something most kids who weren’t the ‘cool’ ones might have felt; Matilda uses her intelligence – something that is often seen as uncool – to cause mischief and outsmart adults to create her own happy outcome. Plus she loves books, and has an unwavering loyalty for those who deserve it. And if you’re still not convinced that she’d be an excellent best friend, imagine the homework-buddy benefits. One of my favourite Dahl characters – and that’s saying a lot!
5. Boy – Tales of Childhood
My final pick is possibly the best way to celebrate the man himself this Roald Dahl day. The author’s autobiography of his early years may be non-fiction, but it is no less witty, vivid, or absorbing than any of his classic stories. His fascinating childhood is not only a wonderful insight into 1920s and 30s Britain, but also an unmissable portrait of the legend behind so many beloved tales. And it’s no less memorable too – I will always remember his description of being caned (and not just because the image appears on the front cover!). I love, too, that you can start to spot where incidents and characters may have originated from. I (pretend that I) hate to use clichés, but I really do believe that it’s the one book that every Roald Dahl fan, young and old, should get stuck into.
Which Roald Dahl books make your top five?
If you’d like to learn more about the man behind the words, Donald Sturrock’s biography, Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl (HarperPress, 2010) is available now. With some brilliant reviews, it’s certainly on my ‘to read’ list.
Pictures all taken from Google Image Search.