To celebrate this landmark anniversary, we’re looking back on the genius of Roald Dahl and what 21st century children can learn from his books; which, three decades on, are still powerful and relevant.
Many of Roald Dahl’s most beloved characters are quirky, to say the least: from genius chocolate-maker Willy Wonka to the Big Friendly Giant and even Matilda herself, who has a peculiar flair for telekinesis. And these eccentricities mean that they don’t fit in: the BFG is shunned by his fellow giants because he is, well, big and friendly (and doesn’t like to eat humans!); Matilda prefers reading to watching television, which her cruel family just can’t understand; and Willy Wonka lives with Oompa Loompas rather than other humans.
But rather than encouraging the reader to feel concerned for these characters or pity them for their outsiderness, Roald Dahl celebrates their quirks and champions those that follow their own path rather than following the crowd. Willy Wonka, the BFG and Matilda are all characters that the reader can’t help but fall in love with. Their differences make them special and unique: true trailblazers of Dahl’s magical world.
Not only does Dahl teach young readers to admire those who are different, he encourages openmindedness when it comes to forming relationships. When the orphan Sophie takes a chance and befriends the BFG, despite the massive differences between them, it proves to be the most rewarding relationship of her young life; similarly, in James and the Giant Peach, James learns a great deal from his friendships with the giant bugs he meets (who couldn’t be more different from him). In Dahl’s world, what makes us unique should be embraced because it means we have so much to teach one another – opposites really do attract!
Similar to the point above about celebrating differences is Dahl’s focus on appearances, and how we should not judge those who look different to ourselves (or who do not match up to our preconceived notions of beauty). Beauty is only ever skin deep: the BFG, for instance, might seem scary at first – he’s an enormous giant! – but he has a kind heart. The eponymous villains of The Witches, by contrast, appear to be extremely attractive women but underneath it all are wicked, child-hating monsters.
Roald Dahl makes his thoughts on the subject clear in The Twits, in which he wrote: ‘A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.’
In the world of Roald Dahl, parents or guardians do not always come across very well. Matilda Wormwood’s parents are ghastly: cruel and selfish, with criminal tendencies. James’ aunts in James and the Giant Peach are not much better.
When faced with an unhappy home, Dahl’s children characters do not rest on their laurels or feel sorry for themselves: instead, they take control of the situation and find a way to get through it. Even Charlie Bucket (hero of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), who is blessed with a loving yet deeply impoverished family, doesn’t wallow: instead he manages to secure a better future for himself (and his family) by taking matters into his own hands.
Whilst Roald Dahl certainly champions the value of family and friends, he also illuminates the importance of learning to trust one’s own judgement, make decisions, and support oneself.
In an age where education is increasingly focused on test results and ticking boxes, fun, play, and imagination are sometimes lost – but picking up a Roald Dahl book brings an instant change. What child could fail to fall in love with reading when whizzpopping words like ‘snozzcumber’ and ‘wondercrump’ are floating around? For young people, particularly smaller children, there is a sense of sheer delight that comes with discovering new sounds and tongue-twisting bits of text; through Dahl’s delightful prose, they will soon marvel at the power of language, imagination, and the sense that creative silliness isn’t always ‘wrong’ but – on occasion – is actively encouraged!
There’s a serious side to the pleasures of reading, too. For some children – perhaps those who are going through something at school or at home, or who are naturally shy – getting lost in a book can be a powerful therapeutic process: a wonderful escape from the stresses of the outside world; a valuable way to develop coping mechanisms; and an amazing way to build imaginative skills. This is certainly the case for Matilda, who reads voraciously as a way to escape her unkind family and indulge her passion for learning. As Dahl puts it: ‘The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.’ (Matilda).