Tomorrow is Roald Dahl Day! He still rates highly on lists of most popular children’s authors and I reckon he’s been as influential as J K Rowling in terms of both popular culture and encouraging kids to read. His books also make great films! Here are 5 themes which turn up in pretty much all of his books for children.
Food and drink
In Dahl’s world, food and drink are either delicious or disgusting. On the tasty side are the BFG’s homebrewed frobscottle, the Giant Peach and all of Willy Wonka’s sweet creations. And then think of the medicine which George brews for his grandma, the awful cabbage soup which the Bucket family survive on, the snozzcumbers which the vegetarian BFG has to eat and the worms-disguised-as-spaghetti which Mrs Twit feeds to her husband. In Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the message is not to be greedy; eating without being invited leads to terrible consequences. Such as being turned into a blueberry or falling down the rubbish chute. Remember Bruce Bogtrotter and the huge chocolate cake which Miss Trunchbull forces him to eat as a punishment…
Sometimes family members are wonderful and supportive. There’s the Bucket family, all getting along fine despite being so poor, with the excitable Grandpa Joe accompanying Charlie on his adventures. There’s the father and son teamwork evident in Danny the Champion of the World. And there’s Luke’s streetwise grandma in The Witches. However, just as often, the family are dreadful. Matilda’s neglectful book-hating family are a prime example. Of course there’s also George’s cruel grandma and James’ horrific aunts. When characters have an awful family, though, they end up with the loving substitute family they deserve. James has his insect friends, the orphan Sophie has the BFG, while Matilda is adopted by Miss Honey.
In George’s Marvellous Medicine all kinds of weird changes happen to the animals he tests his potion on. People are morphed by a little girl’s sudden power in The Magic Finger. James and the insects inside the Giant Peach undergo transformation, while children (and later the witches themselves) are turned into mice in The Witches using the potion ‘Formula Number 86 Delayed Action Mousemaker’. Although magic can change appearances, it can’t change anyone’s personality. In Dahl’s books, bad folk can be taught a lesson, but even after they’re defeated they remain bad to the core. If they never bother anyone again, it’s because they’re humiliated, not because they’ve become good.
The worst monsters in Dahl’s books are probably the giants in The BFG. With names like the Child Chewer, Bloodbottler, and, er, Manhugger, they’re your worst nightmare. The witches are also very scary, particularly because they can sniff out children. Then there are the alien Vicious Knids in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. But all the other monsters (at least the ones I can think of) are humans, which I suppose is a message in itself. Miss Trunchbull, the Twits, the farmers in Fantastic Mr Fox, Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge, George’s Grandma… But the great thing is, all of them are foiled in the end, because they’re human.
Children v. adults and animals v. humans. The most vulnerable have the least power, until they put their resources to good use and fight back. So Mr Fox outwits the farmers, Sophie and the BFG enlist the Queen’s support to defeat the giants, Luke and his grandma turn the witches’ potion against them, the birds and monkeys team up against Mr and Mrs Twit, and Matilda uses her intelligence plus her psychic power to stop Miss Trunchbull’s reign of terror. The message is that you can use your skills and your friends to bring bullies to justice and that good, kind people (or animals) deserve happiness.
I’m a fan of Matilda. Did you have a favourite Roald Dahl book when you were growing up? Who’s your favourite Dahl character?