Roald Dahl

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“For many children Roald Dahl is synonymous with reading.”

Fighter ace, surgical device inventor, FDR’s drinking buddy… and then there’s his services to literature, and literacy.

For Roald Dahl’s 100th birthday, the Oxford English Dictionary added several of his words – that’s how we’ve come to think of them – to their volumes.

He is rightfully known for his inventiveness with English. But as the Independent noted in Dahl’s obituary a quarter-century ago, “The quality of his writing is easily discernible by the fluency with which it can be read aloud.”

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See for yourself by reading the passage below out loud. A lesser writer would have crammed it with detail or been oblivious to its rhythm:

At that point a wild and marvelous idea came to me.

Why shouldn’t I go in the Baby Austin? I really did know how to drive. My father had always allowed me to move the automobiles around when they came in for repair. He let me drive them into the workshop and back out again afterward. And sometimes I drove one of them slowly around the pumps in first gear. I loved doing that. And I would get there much quicker if I went by car. This was an emergency. If he was wounded and bleeding badly, then every minute counted. I had never driven on the road, but I would surely not meet any other cars at this time of night. I would go very slowly and keep close to the proper side.

That’s from Danny, the Champion of the World, introduced to my classmates and me by the lovely Ms. Greer, who read it during story time. I hadn’t known books could be that good.

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This year I’m teaching students who are learning English. (English was not Dahl’s first language, either.) We’ve started reading Danny, the Champion of the World together. It is marvelous – to use one of Dahl’s favorite words – to see kids from all over the world devour his writing. It makes my day to read it aloud.

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There’s no link to his Independent obituary, the one I liked best. It’s reproduced below for educational purposes.

The Independent (London)

November 24, 1990, Saturday

Obituary: Roald Dahl

Byline: Julia Eccleshare

Roald Dahl, writer, born Llandaff Glamorgan 13 September 1916, Assistant Air Attache Washington 1942-43, Wing Commander 1943, British Security Co-ordination North America 1943-45, married 1953 Patricia Neal (one son, two daughters, and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1983), 1983 Mrs Felicity Crosland, died Oxford 23 November 1990.

FOR 25 years Roald Dahl occupied a unique position as a children’s writer. Unique on two counts – he was far and away the most popular author for children, topping and filling the bestseller lists time after time while at the same time being disliked, even abhorred, by some adults.

This dual role derived from the very particular strength of his writing which is that it speaks directly to children. He uses their vision to see things and their expressions to describe them. As Dahl himself said on writing for children, “When I write for children I become all twerpy.” This ability to identify directly with his audience gives his writing an immediacy and lack of condescension that makes it powerful. In addition, Dahl recognises that, to children, adults in general, and teachers in particular, represent the authority against which they must pit themselves.

It may have been because of his irreverent attitude towards adults that James and the Giant Peach, Dahl’s first book for children, took six years to cross the Atlantic from its first publication in the United States in 1961. Both it and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which took three years to make the trip and which has, perhaps, become the most famous of all the Dahl titles, were published in this country in 1967. Elaine Moss, reviewing both in The Times in that year, wrote of Charlie, “Humour has few classics but unless I am very much mistaken Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is destined for the roll of honour, junior section. It is the funniest children’s book I have read in years; not just funny, but shot through with a zany pathos which touches the young heart.”

Roald Dahl was born in Wales in 1916, the son of Norwegian parents, and was educated at Repton. He went to work for Shell in Dar es Salaam in 1937 and joined the Royal Air Force in Nairobi when war broke out. Back injuries he sustained in a crash-landing in the desert plagued him for the rest of his life. He was transferred to Washington as an air attache in 1942 and it was there that he met C.S. Forester, who asked him for his war experiences as he wanted to write an account for an American audience. Dahl found it easiest to write out his story, for Forester to refer to. Forester was so impressed that he found a magazine editor to take it for publication, and told Dahl that he was a born writer.

Dahl continued to live in the United States, and became a noted short-story writer, publishing pieces in the New Yorker. His first volume of short stories, Over to You: 10 stories of flyers and flying, was published in New York in 1946, with an English edition in the following year. It was as a short-story writer that Dahl established his early reputation, with cautionary, tightly-plotted pieces where bizarre circumstances invade day-to-day scenes, a style established in the collections Someone Like You (1954) and Kiss, Kiss (1960). Dahl was a craftsmanlike writer, sometimes working for weeks to hone the plotting and detail of one story. A regular device is a bet or competition in which the apparent victor loses face. In “Parson’s Pleasure” the “victor” aims to acquire from a farmer, for a small sum, what he knows to be a unique Chippendale commode, affecting such nonchalance – wanting it “only” for the timber – that the farmer, wishing to save him transport difficulties, is found chopping it to pieces as he draws up to collect his prize.

Dahl’s stories enjoyed success on both sides of the Atlantic and were made into a series of 30- minute programmes, under the title Tales of the Unexpected, by Anglia Television in 1979. Dahl had no involvement with the scripting of the stories but wrote screenplays for the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), both Cubby Broccoli productions, and for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971).

Dahl married the actress Patricia Neal in 1953. They had five children, but their family life was tinged with tragedy. Their son, Theo, suffered brain damage in a car crash at the age of two and one of their daughters died of measles. Patricia Neal suffered three massive strokes, though she later recovered sufficiently to resume her career.

By the early Seventies Dahl regarded himself principally as a writer of children’s stories, although he published an adult comic novel, My Uncle Oswald, in 1979. Dahl’s vulgarity and childlike delight in excess made adults sceptical of his outstanding qualities as a storyteller and master of invention. Adults, when judging children’s books, tend to be especially sensitive and protective about what children should and should not read. That he was controversial there can be no doubt. He could be cruel, savage even, when attacking things he did not like. His loathing of blood sports is given full rein in both The Magic Finger (1966) and Danny, the Champion of the World (1975). His intellectual snobbishness shows through time and time again, most notably in one of his last titles, Matilda (1988). He was accused of being anti-women for his book The Witches (1983), a charge he most strenuously denied. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had distinctly racist overtones in its first editions, an attitude that was corrected in later editions.

But Dahl had other sides, too, which can be found throughout his stories and give the lie to some of the charges laid against him. In The Witches, the most interesting and respected character is the grandmother, a woman of immense understanding and sympathy. No one who despised women could invent a character like her. (She is also an illuminating antidote to the vile grandmother in George’s Marvellous Medicine, 1981.) The tenderness of the relationship between Danny and his father in Danny, the Champion of the World verges on the sentimental, making it one of Dahl’s easiest books for adults as well as children to enjoy whole-heartedly. Similarly, in The BFG (1982) Dahl created a character, a tender-hearted giant with a penchant for an off- beam, invented vocabulary all of his own, who can only be loved by all. Esio Trot (1990), his last published title (there is one more, The Min Pins awaiting publication, as well as his manuscript of The Vicar of Nibbleswicke recently auctioned to raise money for the Dyslexia Society), is a wholly likeable and dotty story about a favourite tortoise.

All these books show that Dahl held many different views of the world. In his writing his aim was to delight children. To him, the importance of his success was that he helped the cause of children’s reading. No one could dispute the huge role he played in getting children hooked into reading by offering them the kind of stories they really wanted to read. Stylistically, too, he helped new readers by using language simply and accurately. The quality of his writing is easily discernible by the fluency with which it can be read aloud.

Outside his own writing, his commitment to furthering the cause of children’s reading was fulfilled in his role as honorary patron of Readathon, a nationwide sponsored reading event which not only raises money for the Malcolm Sargent Cancer Fund for Children but also encourages talking to children throughout the country to read – and enjoy it. Dahl was gifted at talking to children at signing sessions where he was tireless in his commitment to making children feel genuine contact with him.

For many children Roald Dahl is synonymous with reading. He is the one author whose books are currency among children, being passed eagerly from hand to hand as soon as they appear. The absence of new Dahl titles will be a loss for many young readers.