Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Roald Dahl and Children’s Literature

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 10, 2008

My first exposure to Roald Dahl was as an adolescent. He was an accidental find. I remember picking up a collection of his short stories titled “Switch Bitch” from the British library at Hyderabad. The stories were wicked and tantalisingly funny with definitive adult slant and packed with enough erotic punch to dizzy an adolescent. What prompted me to lay my hands on this book of his is still unknown to me.  Although I was mightily impressed with his capacity to tell juicy stories, I somehow never made an effort to read his other stories – barring a couple of them here and there like “Parsons Pleasure” and those two classics “Taste” and “Lamb to Slaughter“.  Dahl existed in my memory as a very entertaining writer but not in a way to evoke serious exploration

Not till I reached a stage where I had to face the uncompromising demands of my children to read bed time stories did I gravitate towards the oeuvre of Roald Dahl. My children in effect have pushed me into a situation where I had no choice but to revisit him seriously. Collectively we have now read ” The Twits“, “The Witches” “The BFG“, “Matilda“, “The Vicar of Nibbleswick “, “James and the Giant Peach” , “Fantastic Mr.Fox“, “The Magic Finger“,  “Esio Trot“.  And as a coincidence, I also happened to watch a program called “The Picture Book” on BBC 4 dealing with the topic of children’s literature. It is in this series that I found a brilliant coverage on Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake (illustrations for most of his childrens books have been done by Quentin Blake)

Children’s literature is a strange world to inhabit. For all its seeming simplicity, it to my mind is a complex area. Complexity arises because of the forced need to be simple and imaginative.  Also the distance in the age and make up of the writer (who is an adult) and the reader who is young, curious, unaware,  impressionable and extremely discerning add to the difficulties of writing for children. Try and drag the narrative for a couple of pages with child readers and one gets to realise how difficult it will be to get their attention back to plod through the book. It is this ability to sustain the element of entertainment and appeal, the most challenging aspect of children literature. My initial impressions on reading Dahl were not very favourable, although puzzlingly enough, my kids were in raptures and asking for more. It took time for me to realise that the mistake was in the perspective I was adopting. I was trying to read Dahl‘s books with the eyes of an adult. I was looking for a message – a bigger and grander scheme of things and purpose.  But for my children (and I guess for all other children who read Dahl) it is an avenue for fun, entertainment and high quality adventure.  An opportunity to soar into and dwell in worlds they think exist somewhere outside their cosy homes. Children’s books ought to be read with the eyes of children.  A small volte face in outlook and the unappealing becomes the appealing. That is exactly what appears to have happened to me.

So what is it that is attractive for children in Dahl‘s books ? I think Dahl‘s writing carries with it a combination of interesting apsects. First and foremost is a delectable mixture of ordinary with the fantastic and fantasy — which leads to an element of fun, adventure and expectation. The whole sense of anticipation of what is going to happen next is a constant bait that Dahl uses quite effectively to hook kids on. Then comes the element of the winning underdog – Charlie, Matilda, James, Sophie are all nice examples of this.  Barring Matilda (who has some extraordinary mental faculties) all are normal children who are aware of their physical fraility. In some cases they are disadvantaged in a big way, i.e. they are orphaned – I think this sets the sympathies of the reading children straightaway. In general, lonesome children are the heroes and heroines of Dahl‘s books.  Adults are a mixed bag of extremes – they are either kind and understanding or outright evil and vicious. Maybe children tend to judge a majority of aspects in a two dimensional framework and hence Dahl‘s propensity to portray characters in this vein. But that is how all the fairy tales portray adults

Some of Dahl‘s books for children have a subtle element of terror and immense scope for potential wickedness which I think children find quite thrilling.  As an example, the focused plan of the “The Grand High Witch” to convert the children of England into rats through a magic potion administered through sweetshops owned by witches or the senseless wickedness of the giants to gobble children of England and other countries is scary.  However, I also think children sense even without going to the end of the book that somehow this wickedness will be managed to their satisfaction. With this assured sense of certainty in mind that no harm will come to the heroes and heroines, the curiosity element related to “what next?” and “how will it proceed?” is aroused. Dahl is a master in arousing this curiosity in children. May be that accounts for the universal fan following for him across the world. Dahl‘s control of language is unique and exquisite. There is a wonderfully twisty touch. The raves and rants of the malefactors who populate his books are so extreme that they are set up to slip into a sense of ludicrous quite naturally. Mrs.Trunchbull’s (what a name!) ranting in “Matilda” especially when she addresses children is a clear demonstration of that.  Even very young readers can easily decipher the element of humour there.  Alternately the language of the kind giant in “The BFG” where the commonly spoken english is unendingly twisted with inappropriate substitutions that one cannot but  laugh. Dahl‘s language carries an element of conscious bluster which is not only funny but also very suggestive — the snozcumbers, human beans are not very hard to make out as one reads along.  Added to all of this are the wonderfully funny poems that Dahl introduces in his stories. Rhyming, humorous, sing-song and contextual  – they are an absolute delight to any reader

One of the critical success factors in children’s literature are the illustrations and it is here that most of Dahl‘s books have benefited from the superb contributions of Quentin Blake — Willy Wonka, Trunchbull, Grand High Witch, Matilda, BFG, Sophie, Mr and Mrs.Twit  are a few of the illustrations that one can never forget

The more I read Dahl ( thank God! there is so much more to read), the more I am coming to realise that he is one of the greatest writers of children literature ever.  And as long as there are children and books to read, Dahl will be read. For adults like me who have missed out on his books during our childhoods, reading them to our children is the easiest way of experiencing glimpses of our own forgotton childhood and the joys associated with it

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