Roald Dahl’s unique view of childhood makes us want to re-read every book, from James and the Giant Peach to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to recapture some of all we have lost.
Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka and Peter Ostrum as Charlie Bucket on the set of the film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, based on the book by Roald Dahl, 1971. Silver Screen Collection | Getty Images
Few authors have had the impact on children’s literature that Roald Dahl has had: his book sales now top 250 million, and even 26 years after his death Matilda, James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continue to be “must-reads” on every child’s bookshelf. Dahl, who was born 100 years ago this week, also wrote books for adults, but the titles that have been largely forgotten. His tremendous gift was his insight into the minds of children: he had a precise understanding of their world-views and vulnerabilities. Children have a unique spiritual gift—a combination of empathy, fantasy, and vulnerability—that most of us lose as we grow up. But Dahl retained that compassion for the world’s smallest citizens, and the world’s smallest readers have loved him in return. Below, six insights about life that Dahl has shared with children for decades.
Sometimes the big people are jerks
Kids accept what they’re given as normal, but there’s still a tiny voice inside them that lets them know when things aren’t right—like when adults are being big, nasty jerks.
Matilda is the most classic example, but The Witches and James and the Giant Peach don’t show the best of adulthood either. When you’re a child, you can be right, but frequently that doesn’t matter. You are ignored or told to simply obey regardless of fairness or logic. Dahl’s books illustrated this tiny voice for kids: that what they were feeling was legitimate. The stories affirm children’s instincts: that there is a right and wrong, and sometimes grownups (who are in charge!) are just … wrong.
The adults in many of Dahl’s books are over-the-top bad, physically embodying the qualities most of us hide deep inside. It is perfect! Haven’t you always wished that mean people had evil warts on their noses to make it clear from the start?
Sometimes a bit of sugar does make it all better
Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory is magical—and not just in a literal sense (all those trained squirrels). A place where you can taste anything and everything. But even before you get into the wonderland, Charlie Bucket’s terrible little life is transformed by chocolate. Just a taste of it melting on his tongue erases his poverty and the endless cabbage soup. Children, even well-cared-for children, understand deprivation. Dahl’s fantasy world, in which every child could eat to his or her heart’s content, satisfies a deep need in little readers for care, nourishment, and affection.
This isn’t the only time Dahl makes mouths water. In his autobiography Boy, Dahl’s childhood fixation on the neighborhood candy shop explains a whole lot about the characters in his book. It makes me wish for a time of penny candy that you have to choose carefully, piece by piece.
Charlie in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, 1971. Photo Courtesy of Everett Collection
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes
The bugs of James and the Giant Peach, tiny misfit children in nearly every book, a boy and his dad fighting against a wealthy landowner in Danny, Champion of the World. These are not the superheroes, the athletes, the rich and powerful. These are the everyday folks who outwit, maneuver, and outlast. Dahl’s heroes are his readers. Children are always the Davids, never the Goliaths, and Dahl’s books celebrates the little ones watching the world around them and taking notes, just waiting for opportunities.
Your imagination is a powerful thing
Reality is for grownups. Even at 30, 40, or 50, we could probably all use a little more imagination. For adults, there’s a firm wall between “real” and “imaginary,” but for children those boundaries are very porous, and Dahl celebrated that fluid space between what could be instead of what already is. For adults who remain in touch with that childhood instinct, that’s how we invent and create. Revolting Rhymes isn’t one of Dahl’s most popular books (though I don’t know why). My parents brought it back from a trip to England when I was a child, and it was a huge family hit—gruesome, Grimm-worthy takes on classic fairy tales, including Cinderella’s step sisters hacking at feet to fit into the glass slipper. Talk about inventive.
A bit more mainstream, in the very odd sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, sweet Charlie Bucket travels with Willy Wonka in the glass elevator. The possibilities are endless—aging backwards, for example. The inventiveness doesn’t always quite work, but that’s part of the magic. You, the reader, can imagine just as well as the author. You can create worlds and ideas. Who knows how it all will turn out?
Being a child is lonely
We forget this as we grow up. Children don’t know that other people feel the same way that they do. Other people are afraid and ashamed, nervous and awkward. It is all new and feels overwhelming—until you read. The kids in Dahl’s books have real problems—messy families, naughty ideas, trouble at school. They go to the doctor, get their letters mixed up when they read, don’t get enough to eat. The books let children know that their personal, isolating experiences are actually universal experiences. To see a piece of yourself on the page—a piece you want to hide—is a powerful moment in a child’s life. It is an empathetic connection with the rest of the world.
Laughter is the best medicine
Laughter researcher Robert Provine has found babies laugh 300 times a day, while adults laugh only 20 times. Kids are definitely closer to that baby number, at least in my house. Life is hard, even when you are a kid. Laughing helps. Things are silly—bodies, animals, sounds, friends. Taking the time to laugh relieves stress and makes things just a little better. Dahl knows a bit of silly goes a long way. If you don’t believe me, take a look at any of Quentin Blake’s drawings in any of Roald Dahl’s books. These are not serious works of art. They have one purpose: to make you laugh. And that, from a 100 years away, is Dahl’s enduring message: We all struggle. Life is ridiculous. But we are not alone.
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