The Compulsive Reader: Happy 100th Birthday, Roald Dahl!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Happy 100th Birthday, Roald Dahl!

Well, 2016 is quite the hallmark year for children's writers. In April, Beverly Cleary turned 100 years old, and next week, on the 13th, would be Roald Dahl's 100th birthday. I don't know about you all, but when I found out that two legendary authors whose books were touchstones in my childhood were also born in the same year--it was a bit a surprise. Their lives and careers were both very different, I sort of imagined them as living in totally different times.

Most of us know and love Dahl's most popular books--Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The BFG--but Dahl taught me a very important lesson when I was a young reader: if you like a book, go look up that author in the library because you might be surprised by an extensive backlist. It's safe to say that Roald Dahl's books were the first I ever binge-read. It was awesome, because all of his books are delightfully weird, but also because it then allowed me to be a young, smug reader who went around saying stuff like, "Oh, you like Dahl because you read the BFG? Well, have you read Danny the Champion of the World? Because that's where that story comes from!" I know, I know. I was terrible.

But Danny the Champion of the World sticks in my mind for some reason. I think it was perhaps because most of my peers tore through Dahl's books but I was the only one who read Danny. Maybe it's because the first few chapters contain the origin story of the BFG (it's a bedtime tale told to Danny by his father), and I was so charmed by the connection between books. Maybe it's because the plot is so odd. I recently re-read it for the first time since I was a smug little reader, and the entire time I couldn't help but marvel at the plot, which I think would be a hard sell in today's market. It's about Danny, who lives a charmingly humble life with his dad in a gypsy wagon at a filling station. Danny's dad is the best in the world--kind and humble and entertaining, and provides everything for Danny. They're poor, but happy. Then when Danny is nine, he learns his dad's deep, dark secret--he's an illegal poacher! He loaves to poach pheasant from the rich man's woods, and soon he starts taking Danny with him even though there is a legitimate chance that both Dad and Danny would be shot on sight. But the rich man is understandably awful, so it's okay. Danny comes up with the most excellent plan ever to poach all of the pheasants from this man that everyone hates, making him the champion of the world, and learns a lot about his community in the process.

Basically, the book is about breaking all of the rules and finding out that the adults are not only complicit, but encouraging of this. No wonder I loved this book as a kid.

But this new understanding of my childhood love of Danny made me think of a troubling trend I've encountered at work recently, where I'll suggest a children's book to a parent looking for reading material for their kid, and after explaining the premise, I'll get a variation of, "No, not that one. My kid is energetic/mischievous/has a history of getting into trouble, and I'm afraid that that book will give them ideas."

To which I always want to say, "Well, isn't that the point?"

Unpacking this issue would talk another post, but I think stories like Danny the Champion of the World--ridiculous, over the top stories about illegal poaching--are fine. I don't think any child is going to turn into a criminal after reading this book. I think kids are going to read it, and be inspired by Danny's bravery (even when he's scared) and delighted to find that he has so many adult supporters. I think this book will entertain and inspire and spark curiosity. Luckily, I don't need to hand-sell this book to any parent, because Dahl's name sells itself. And Danny isn't the only rule-breaker in Dahl's canon. I'm glad that these preposterous, delightful, mischievous stories are still finding their way to kids. It gives me hope--that kids will turn into readers, that they'll go to the library and look up the rest of Dahl's books, and that they'll keep on discovering stories about crazy, rule-breaking kids.

Thanks for the great books, Roald Dahl, and happy 100th birthday!

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