WHEN I WAS TEN — or thereabouts — I decided to read everything that Road Dahl had ever written. This was just the beginning of a lifetime of compulsive reading behavior, wherein I would grow enamored with an author and thrash my way through their entire bibliography, before suddenly growing sick of them and dropping them, often forever. (See: Stephen King, Ayn Rand, Philip Roth.)
With Roald Dahl, I never grew bored. I tore through Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach and Fantastic Mr. Fox before moving on to more obscure fare like The BFG and The Witches and The Twits. When I discovered that the adult section of the library also had a whole shelf of Roald Dahl short story collections, I checked these out too. Dahl published more than three dozen books during his lifetime, and although I failed to read them all, I made a champion effort. At the very least, I exhausted the ample offerings of the Menlo Park Public Library.
I was a lonely child — too smart-alecky and goody-two-shoes for my own good, the kind of socially inept kid that lurks around the edges of the playground wondering why no one invites them to play. I didn't watch TV. I volunteered at the local library, for fun. I wore my cousin's out-of-style hand-me-downs (I'm still traumatized by the memory of a pair of turquoise pleated polyester pants with a matching check button-down shirt, worn about the same time that my peers discovered acid washed jeans and off-the-shoulder T-shirts). I let my mom cut my hair in a bad approximation of the Dorothy Hamill hairdo. I was not a popular birthday party guest, to say the least. It was no wonder that I could identify with Roald Dahl's heroes and heroines.
In Dahl's books, children have no friends their own age; often, they have no one who loves them at all. In James and the Giant Peach, James is the battered slave of his loathsome aunts; in The BFG, Sophie lives in an orphanage; in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie's only confidant is his penniless nonagenarian grandfather. Dahl captures the cruel isolation of adolescence and transforms this exile into victory. In his books, his heroes inevitably find the one person who understands them (a magic chocolatier; a talking grasshopper; a friendly giant). Sometimes, they even discover they have superpowers. Always, they wreak their revenge upon their tormentors.
In other words: Dahl tapped into my own secret desires, even if I couldn't express them myself.
Dahl's been dead now for twenty-two years; James and the Giant Peach, the first children's book he ever wrote, recently had its 50th anniversary. Compared to the gothic and cynical supernatural fare currently imbibed by modern tweens, Dahl's oeuvre is cartoonish — full of shoe-loving centipedes, Oompa-Loompas, and monkeys called Muggle-Wumps — as well as anachronistic, with its whiff of English boarding schools and post-war Wasp life. And yet his books remain delightfully fresh and refreshingly naïve, frequently devolving into blithe silliness. It's no wonder that Gen Xers are nostalgic for his stories, two of which have been made into movies in the last few years (Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox.)...read more