Authors are magicians.
They capture your imagination with words and imagery.
Similar to a siren singing her tune, an author draws the reader in with stories of heroes, villains, mysteries and magic. There are several writers that come to mind when one thinks about perspicacity at understanding a developing mind. Enid Blyton comes to my thoughts immediately, as it was her books of Faraway trees, Wishing Chairs, Mallory Towers and the adventurous children that beguiled and transformed me into a certifiable bookworm. Other authors with these same mystical powers include Emily Rodda, A A Milne, Dr Seuss, C. S Lewis, Beatrix Potter, E.B White, Lewis Carrol, Eric Carle, Rick Riordan, J K Rowling and of course, Roald Dahl.
Dahl’s popularity has enthralled generations of children with his fantastical tales. Even 30 years after the publication of perspicacious Matilda, the lure is still strong according to Kelly (2019) who recently published an article in the Sunday Times just short of the author’s birthdate. Dahl’s books have inspired generations of children to read. His stories of redemption and resilience appeal to both children and adults. I found it particularly interesting that the books often seem to be narrated by the child protagonist. By doing so, Dahl places the reader in the central position and thus immediately engages their interest. The books often place the child in the role of an underdog and their eventual vanquishment of the bigger and older (usually an adult) enemy gives great satisfaction. Darby (2016) believes that this narrative style is appealing to children as it makes them feel like “someone is in their court”.
Some people assert that Dahl’s books are macabre and filled with violence, racial slurs, misogyny and vindictive behaviour. Anderson (2016) argues that the books caused great disturbance among adult readers when they first started being published in the late 60’s. Stories where witches turn children into mice, people are fed worms and or eaten by giants, and let us not forget principals that swing cute girls by their hair like a discus and push children into nail studded cupboards.
In fact, “James and the Giant Peach has been lambasted for its racism, profanity and sexual innuendo” Anderson (2016) states.
It appears Dahl was provoking everyone, as he offended numerous demographics in equal measure. But I am starting to believe that the provocation is what lured children to read and re-read his books. It was just that little bit naughty and disgusting. Just enough to make children feel superior and more wise than the character, but not too much as to disengage the reader. Arguably this is probably what explains Dahl’s longevity as an author. Nice clean stories such as Wilder’s Little House series has its staunch clientele but it does lacks the Dahl’s drawcard in that the majority of children do not identify with these characters. Kole (2018) suggests that it is when the reader can draw upon their own experience with the subject matter that engagement with the text occurs. This could be contended similar for L M Montgomery’s Anne or White’s Charlotte’s Web. All extremely well written and received books, but not as far reaching as Dahl. Whilst their stories do have points of personal travail, they simply are not dark enough.
This need for darkness is important for children’s literature
as Anderson (2016) and Kole (2018) further elucidate. One can only think of the popularity of the Grimm fairy tales, Rowling’s Harry Potter, Collins ’Hunger Games and Meyer’s Twilight to realise that the desire for grim has not changed in centuries. The adage about literature reflecting life is the underlying support for this need for fear and fright in children’s books. Stories of children overcoming great difficulty has the ability to build great resilience and empathy in the reader.
We are all aware of how reading builds empathy. Readers identify with the characters in the story and thus the feelings from one are juxtaposition-ed on the other . But reading fictitious stories of giants, witches and wizards, whilst unrealistic, also gives children an important cathartic release according to Bettelheim (2010). Rochelle (1977) whilst dated, firmly believes that adults and children both require fantastical literature to interweave the complex strains of good and evil in humanity. Fantastical tales give children innate strength to overcome hurdles life throws at them, no matter how bizarre it is (Kole, 2018). Children are aware that these stories are unreal in the fantastical sense but the situation that the characters are facing are very real indeed (Rochelle, 1977). Wakefield (2014) agrees and points out that fairy tales are there to protect rather than terrify, as the protagonist is forced to seek inner strength to overcome the villain. The stories illustrate that these situations can be overcome, and in that, give hope and possibly a way out.
Fantastical tales are more than just entertainment. In their own way, they give children (and adults) the ability to fight demons in both the real world and in their dreams. After all, the lives of children are not always filled with rainbows and unicorns. Many children live in shadows. Reading stories such as Dahl’s encourage children (and adults) to go past their grim quagmire and find their inner strength.
So this Roald Dahl day on September 13, read a fantastical story… and at the same time, gain some humanity.
Anderson, H. (2016) The dark side of Roald Dahl. BBC Culture. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20160912-the-dark-side-of-roald-dahl
Bettelheim, B (2010) The uses of enchantment; the meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York: Vintage Books. Vintage Edition.
Darby, S. (2016). 15 Must read children’s authors. BNKIDS blog. [blog]. Retrieved from barnesandnoble.com/blog/kids/15-must-read-childrens-authors/
Kelly, L. (2019). Roald Dahl clan to share £6m dividend from licensing rights. Sunday Times. Retrived from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/roald-dahl-clan-to-share-6m-dividend-from-licensing-rights-bdtdt6qfd
Grinstead, R. (2016) Happy Roald Dahl day. Medium.com [blog]. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@rhysgrinstead/its-roald-dahl-day-here-s-how-he-influenced-me-844a4e75bc19
Kole, K. (2018). The role of fairy tales in affective learning: Enhancing adult literacy and learning in FE and community settings. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 58(3), 365-389. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.csu.edu.au/docview/2250950746?accountid=10344
Rochelle, L. (1977). The search for meaning through fantasy. The English Journal. Vol. 66, No. 7, pp 54-55. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/814365
Wakefield, M. (2014). Why scary fairy stories are the best. The Spectator.