Yesterday, Roald Dahl would've been 95. 2011 also marks another, even more important landmark in the Dahl dynasty though - it is fifty years since the first of his famous children's novels, James and the Giant Peach, hit our shelves.
To celebrate this anniversary, I had the pleasure of running two sessions of games and activities based on his work at Stories Bookshop in Launceston. Interspersed with readings, we played games about 'snozzcumbers' and glued fragments of macaroni and broccoli onto our own wearable version of Mr Twit's beard.
Revisiting Mr. Dahl's work sent me back to a world of long forgotten memories. When going to a scholarship interview as a child, I remember being asked what I wanted to do in my future. I told them I wanted to write books, for kids initially. "I see! Like J.K. Rowling then?" one of the panellists asked me. I replied, "No. More like Roald Dahl." While in the years that followed I would soften even more to J.K Rowling's deeply dense and engrossing world - for sheer imagination, enjoyment, and power across a broad range of books, I knew exactly who I wanted to be.
Reading the books again, I was surprised at their power to shock. James's horrible aunts 'Spiker and Sponge' are crushed to death in James and the Giant Peach, lying 'ironed out upon the grass as flat and thin and lifeless as a couple of paper dolls cut out of a picture book.' A few children gasped with horror as Jack's mum was crunched up by the giant in Revolting Rhymes, another terrible parent with a propensity to hit her child (with - what could be meaner? - the handle of a vacuum cleaner!). I myself can remember many sleepless nights over The Witches - a terrifying book that I read it again and again regardless.
Roald Dahl's early career as a taste tester for Cadbury's (as if a famous children's writer isn't enough!) is no surprise. Dahl knew that a little bit of something bad for you doesn't hurt. In his books the evil meet their come-uppance, and the good triumph through kindness, generosity, and a love of all that is right in the world (which usually includes reading!). Who can forget the polite and quiet Charlie, who waited patiently while a macabre farce of greed was played out on Wonka's factory tour? Or the gorgeous Matilda, pushed aside and mistreated by everyone, and yet finally given a chance to restore some balance?
Roald Dahl knew how to make children squeal with delight and horror. He was entirely unafraid of exposing the desperately horrible world that other writers often feared to touch - the cruelty of adults to children, and the power of children facing overwhelming odds, simply to be themselves. He was unapologetic, daring, and funny beyond measure. Like Mr. Wonka's famous Whipplescrumptious delight, Dahl's books feel bad for you - all enjoyment and no nutritional value. The catch is of course, they are so, so good for you. Really, they're some of the best there is.