Roald Dahl




Image c. Michael Dyer, with illustrations by Quentin Blake. Taken from FANTASTIC MR. DAHL.

A post about funny books and the termination of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize crossed my digital path today (Picture Book Den: Why we seriously need a new funny prize, by Jonathan Emmett). I never even knew that the Roald Dahl prize for funny books existed. I’m glad to now know that it did — and sorry that it doesn’t anymore: I adored Dahl and his nasty grown ups and most of his books. But the old-school parent in me (and the American Puritan) gets a little nervous over the implication that we should all write funny kids books because kids like funny books best. I think: my kids love sweets more than anything else in the world too, but do I only feed them candy?

Don’t get me wrong: funny is good. Funny is GREAT. Funny is TOTALLY NECESSARY. (My husband and I have a pact that people who don’t have a sense of humor about themselves can’t be our friends. Seriously: they suck. They are NO FUN.)

But at the same time, smart is important. And so is thoughtful. And purposeful. And gritty. And eye-opening. And magical. And reflective. And soulful. And… you get my drift.

In the trade market in particular, funny sells books so it’s helpful to be funny (if you want to sell books). I get it. What’s the point of writing a book if nobody reads it? Or if they only read it because some pickle-faced adult forces them to? But if we only ever ate deserts, everyone would spend their whole lives walking around with horrible stomach aches. Likewise if all we read was silly books I think we’d probably get a bit bored, too.

Books that are funny and smart, or funny and pointed, or funny and heart-wrenching are not quite the same as books that are just plain silly. And they are that much better-received for reaching readers in more than one way too. If some group really does step in to fill the gap in kidlit funny-prize-giving though – as Emmett is rallying for – I vote for the new prizes to be FUNNY AND prizes.

(and check out that gifted robin…)


BAD ADULTS, REAL BUGS and Roald Dahl’s Peach

One of my oldest and dearest friends recently welcomed two new children into her family: five and six year-old sisters who came through a state foster care system. If all goes according to plan, they will be fully adopted within the next two months.

The whole brood (my friend, her 12 year-old step-daughter, her husband and the two girls) recently spent five days with us in central Pennsylvania, en route to New York City  (the girls’ first trip out of their home state, and their first time on an airplane too). While here, my friend read the girls Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.


(a Nancy Ekholm Burkert illustration from the 1961 edition that my mother read aloud to me)

Intentionally or not, the book offered a way for them to begin to imagine that great metropolis where their trip would end, and by the time they left us plans were in the works for a visit to the Empire State Building (I also suggested they try to visit the peach pit sculpture in Central Park. Whoops! The aging brain at work again: there is apparently no such thing. But really. If Hans Christian Andersen gets a bench, and Alice gathers her crew around a cluster of big, bronze mushrooms, why not a habitable peach pit?) alice-in-wonderland

The girls’ paths so far, as one would expect, have carried them through complex territories, inhabited by adults whose impact – good and bad — they will be making sense of for the rest of their lives. I couldn’t help wonder, after they left, about what sense they made of the parent-less James, and of Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spike, those vile old child-hating aunts.


(I blame this Burkert illustration for my mistaken belief in the Central Park Peach Pit)

Most Dahl grown-ups are either all good or all bad — like characters in fairy tales. In Dahl’s stories though, the good and the evil live much closer to the here-and-now than the fairy godmothers and wicked stepmothers of days gone by.

In James, Dahl’s first book for children, there are only bad grown-ups (save for James’ parents who we know only in their absence). Spike and Sponge dominate the first portion of the book, and even the barely-present little guy who gives James the bag of green wigglies is a bit of a creep.

But, there are good bugs. Centipede, Grasshopper, Ladybug, Silkworm, Earthworm, Glow-worm and Spider are full of idiosyncracies and foibles but, at the end of the day, all win sympathy. Dahl seems to be freed up by this cast of critters — by the fact that they are not human — and he ironically grants them much more humanity than his good and bad human adults. The Peach’s oversized inhabitants are so much more nuanced than, say, Matilda’s father, or Miss Honey, or even Charlie’s lovely grandfather.

For my friend’s two new daughters — and for their whole family — the journey is not, right now, about finding a prince or slaying a dragon or freeing a trapped unicorn. It is about growing trust and about forging connection and about becoming part of a forever family. And I love the idea of their discovering one roadmap for this quest in an improbable story about a boy working his way into a quirky new family of giant, mismatched bugs in the belly of a juicy, oversized fruit — floating across an unimaginably vast Ocean through a world of Cloud-Men, rainbows, seagulls and sharks.