This study will discuss how Roald Dahl has managed to achieved enduring popularity with children. It will consider how books he wrote 50 years ago are still extremely popular with children today, whereas most books from this time seem outdated and obsolete. This study will look at Dahl’s extensive range of work from children’s stories to poetry and plays, analyzing Dahl’s style of writing and language techniques and what methods he uses to relate to children in his novels and poetry. It will refer to Dahl’s biographies ‘Boy: Tales of Childhood’ and ‘Going solo’ to see how his upbringing and childhood influenced his work. It will focus generally on Dahl’s most famous works, for example ‘James and the Giant Peach’ and ‘Matilda’. Finally this study will also refer to some critical reviews such as Sharon E. Royer’s essay, ‘Roald Dahl and Sociology 101’ and some related studies on humour.
Discuss how Roald Dahl achieves an enduring popularity with children over a span of 50 years.
Roald Dahl is one of the world’s bestselling children’s authors, as well as writing adult novels, short stories, poetry, film scripts and plays. He once said: “If my books can help children become readers, then I feel I have accomplished something important” (Dahl cited in Royer, 1998. Online). This essay will focus on how Dahl has clearly achieved this goal with his enduring popularity with children for over half a century. It will discuss how he succeeds in entertaining children over a long period of time by exploring common themes and language within his books and the many ways he succeeds in relating and empathizing with children through his stories. This will also include an exploration of some of Dahl’s poetry for children in which he retells famous fairytales, giving them a shocking twist. As Dahl’s first children’s books were published in the 1960’s this essay will additionally examine a selection of other authors that were popular at this time to compare the difference and evaluate why Dahl is still extremely popular and other authors are not.
Roald Dahl was born in 1916 in Llandaff, Wales to Norwegian parents. He had five brothers and sisters. One of his sisters died when he was seven, followed by the death of his father only a few weeks later. Dahl was particularly close to his mother and family remained important to him throughout his life. He was educated at a boarding school in England where he wrote to his mother every day, a habit which continued after he left school, up until she died in 1967. (Anon. 2003. Online). In Dahl’s autobiography, ‘Boy: tales of childhood’ (1984) he recounts stories of his childhood, including his shocking experiences of being caned by the headmaster and playing tricks on the woman in the sweet shop. In his second autobiography, ‘Going solo’ (1986) Dahl discusses certain events from adulthood that have stuck in his memory. There are comparisons to be made between Dahl’s autobiographies and his other novels, with many similarities between his autobiographies and his fictional children’s books. Both the autobiographical ‘Boy’, ‘Going solo’ and Dahl’s fictional works contain dramatic characters and events that evoke vivid pictures for his readers. “I was horrified by the huge red lumps that had fallen out of my mouth into the white basin and my first thought was that the doctor had cut out the whole middle of my head.” (Dahl, 2009a. Page 70). Dahl incorporates vivid descriptions in both his fictional books as well as his autobiographies. He has a consistent style of writing that does not change. “…I picked out the oldest, bluntest needle I could find then I rubbed the point of it on a nail-file to make it blunter still. By the time I’d got through with it, it was blunter than a ball-point pen…. I rammed that needle into his fleshy backside, he screamed like a stuck pig” (Dahl, 2001a. Page 85) Dahl creates graphic descriptions and illustrations in his autobiographies of shocking or terrifying events. Once Dahl’s own, personal experiences are read and known to his readers, the experiences of his fictional characters can be seen in this context and the reader can approach all of his writing with a sense that anything is possible. Often, the character of the villain, bully or the ‘baddy’ in Dahl’s writing appears to be malicious for no good cause, for example ‘Grandma’ in ‘George’s marvellous medicine’. “Most grandmothers are lovely, kind, helpful old ladies, but not this one.” (Dahl, 2001b. Page 2). In Dahl’s autobiography, ‘Boy’, he also expresses feelings about the inherent maliciousness of some people. His personal experiences of his malevolent headmaster even led him to question religion: “If this person, I kept telling myself, was one of God’s chosen salesmen on earth, then there must be something very wrong about the whole business.” (Dahl, 2009a. Page 146). Dahl’s belief in the intrinsic cruelty of some human nature, coupled with his imagination results in the successful creation of some appalling and ghastly characters. Dahl wrote: “The fouler and more filthy a person is, the more fun it is to see him getting scrunched” (Dahl, 2009a. Page 187). By creating such characters children are able to relate and identify with the victim in the book as often children are unable to see or understand the reason behind adult’s seemingly oppressive and unreasonable behaviour.
The reader is often able to enjoy colluding with the child protagonist in his novels, including Dahl himself in ‘Boy’, as they frequently conquer their oppressors. “I felt like a hero. I was a hero.” (Dahl, 2009a. Page 37). Many of his novels contain child characters that seem to be living in hopeless and overwhelmingly oppressive situations, with no obvious way out. However, the reader takes pleasure in the characters triumph because of its unexpectedness in the face of adversity. Dahl once said: “in order to see life from a child’s point of view you had to get down on your hands and knees and look up at the adults towering above you, telling you what to do. ‘Matilda’s’ triumph over the nasty adults in her life is based on this theory.” (Dahl, 2001c. Page 234).
Dahl’s implied criticism of adults and his contempt for educational settings makes his novels popular not only with children but also with adolescents. ‘Matilda’ and ‘The Witches’ have moderately young protagonists, however they are always intelligent and above their average level for their age. The books are written for intermediate readers. The narrator of ‘The Witches’, aged seven explains: “We were equally fluent in both languages.” (Dahl, 2009b. Page 6). During the stages of adolescence children establish themselves as independent individuals. Studies show that self-esteem in early adolescents is often lowest during the transition to high school (Murphy & Weiss, 2005. Online). Young people are able to see how the protagonists in Dahl’s books have the capacity to accomplish great things and to exhibit an independent strength and courage. (Slavin cited in Royer, 1998. Online). “These books are able to speak to young adolescent readers because the protagonists, in spite of their ages, are at stages in their psychosocial development similar to the readers.” (Royer, 1998. Online). Dah’s protagonists always triumph: “By golly, somebody’s floored her at last!” (Dahl, 2001c. page 220). By creating victorious child protagonists Dahl appeals to adolescents by supplying themes of the oppression of children by adults at home and in schools. Dahl’s subjective viewpoint allows his readers to relate empathetically with him and his characters.
Roald Dahl’s use of language in all of his children’s novels is a signature for his work. He enjoyed making up his own words. In his book, ‘The BFG’ he even made up his own language for the giants, called ‘Gobblefunk’; “’And I know where there is a bogglebox for boys!’ shouted the Gizzardgulper. ‘All I has to do is reach in and grab myself a handful! English boys is tasting extra lickswishy!’” (Dahl, 2009c. Page 106) Words like these make child readers laugh because the words are unknown and are obvious neologisms. Children from a young age find making-up words intensely humorous and so Dahl’s constant use of these novel words appeals to the child. He uses a lot of alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia. Some words also sound good to say, they have a musical rhythm to them; “Cockatootloo”. “He rolled and he wriggled, he fought and he figgled, he squirmed and he squiggled.” (Dahl, 2009c. Page 186). Dahl’s neologisms are often easy to understand from the context in which they are embedded even though they are made-up. For example ‘babblement’ is a nice, gossipy conversation. Using words like this adds fun to the language without confusing the reader. Dahl uses repetition and sometimes links all these techniques together; “’He’s balmy!’ ‘He’s nutty!’ ‘He’s screwy!’ ‘He’s batty!’ ‘He’s dippy!’ ‘He’s dotty!’ ‘He’s daffy!’” (Dahl, 2001d. Page 110 & 111). This makes the books fun to read as the pace gathers momentum along with the storyline.
The book, ‘The vicar of Nibbleswicke’ (1991) is another of Dahl’s books that finds humour in word-play. It is the story of Reverend Lee who has ‘back-to-front dyslexia’ which causes the sufferer to say words backwards. This is always the verb or noun and the most important, information-carrying word in a phrase, thus creating comic situations. “I am the new rotsap, the raciv of Nibbleswicke! Dog help me!” (Dahl, 1992. Page 23). The reverend does not realise his mistakes and the parishioners are shocked and confused by the reverends behaviour. ‘The Vicar of Nibbleswicke’ was Dahl’s last book and was published posthumously. Dahl is successful at keeping up with the times and incorporating current issues for children into the novel without changing his style of writing. In his earlier books he writes about cruel and malicious characters and spoilt children who get their comeuppance, for example the children in ‘Charlie and the chocolate factory’ but in his later books written in the 1980’s, such as the twits, he uses more disgusting imagery which he did not use in his earlier books. “there were always hundreds of bits of old breakfast and lunches and suppers sticking to the hairs on his face.” (Dahl, 2007. Page 4). When the Vicar was published in 1991 Dahl had included some very taboo words for younger children that could be classed as swear words. “What you must do is pis. Pis gently. All of you, all the way along the rail must pis, pis, pis.” (Dahl, 1992. Page 27). Legitimising such words for young readers allows them the thrill of dabbling in taboo, as well as incorporating a slightly ‘naughty’ element to an otherwise ‘good’ character. However Dahl’s ability to move with the times and to incorporate current issues into his fiction is the only difference in his books. This technique and style does not differ and he continues to successfully create the same effect for his readers from the books he wrote 40 years previously. He reflects times changing, people becoming more liberal with language and less prudish, and children being less sickened by things, and Dahl manages to successfully stay current and up to date with language and themes. Dyslexia was a current issue of the time in the 1980’s and Dahl actually wrote the ‘Vicar of Nibbleswicke’ for the benefit of the Dyslexia Institute, now called Dyslexia Action. (Dahl, 1992).
Roald Dahl’s writing has never been conventional. It is often rude and shocking which makes it comical. This style continues with Dahl’s poetry. In 1982 the book of ‘Revolting Rhymes’ by Roald Dahl was published. This contained a number of classic fairytale stories with a twist turned into poems. In ‘Goldilocks and the three bears’ Dahl, again hints at taboo language and swearing; “And uses one disgusting word That luckily you’ve never heard. (I dare not write it, even hint it. Nobody would ever print it.)” (Dahl, N.D. Online ) This makes the reader guess at what the prohibited word could be. In ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ Dahl continues with forbidden themes and language. “The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers. She whips a pistol from her knickers.” (Dahl, 2010a. Online). These images of classic fairytale characters, which are always stereotypically moral and ethical, are given a twist to seek revenge on the villains. The classic fairytales are not so wholesome anymore. “Which shows that gambling’s not a sin Provided that you always win.” (Dahl, 2010b online) Dahl’s use of rhythm and rhyme in his poetry makes his poems work particularly well out loud which means that the poems can be shared, either by child and parent or groups. “ ’That’s wrong!’ cried Wolf. ‘Have you forgot To tell me what BIG TEETH I’ve got? Ah, well no matter what you say, I’m going to eat you anyway.’ ”(Dahl, 2010a. Online) The rhymes emphasize humour and by using conversation in the poem gives the reader an opportunity to adopt a voice for the character. This also emphasizes the humour.
The descriptive imagery that Roald Dahl uses to introduce new characters is always very detailed, especially for the nasty characters. He frequently describes to the reader his ideal for the character’s role in detail, and then dismisses the individual in one hard-hitting sentence as the antithesis of his ideal. “(Headmistresses) …understand children and have the children’s best interests at heart. They are sympathetic. They are fair and they are deeply interested in education. Miss Trunchbull possessed none of these qualities.” (Dahl, 2001c. Page 76). Dahl employs this technique in ‘George’s marvellous medicine’, ‘Boy: Tales of childhood’ and ‘James and the Giant Peach’. This primes his readers with the knowledge of the character which enables the reader to anticipate conflict to come. Dahl progresses to give detailed descriptions of his characters physical appearance, leaving an extremely vivid image, often of a fierce and unattractive character that the reader then instantly dislikes, summing them up in one sentence. “She looked, in short, more like an eccentric and bloodthirsty follower of the stag-hounds than the headmistress of a nice school for children.” (Dahl, 2001c. Page 77).
Dahl incorporates similes, creating comedy elements into his descriptions of physical appearance. When describing Grandma in George’s marvellous medicine he writes; “She had pale brown teeth and a small puckered-up mouth like a dog’s bottom” (Dahl, 2001b. Page 2). When introducing characters Dahl’s uses comedy, vivid imagery and also literary techniques, for instance, alliteration. “She was also complaining, grousing, grouching, grumbling, griping about something or another” (Dahl, 2001b. Page 2). Dahl creates a strong image for his readers. This is important as it keeps them gripped as they can mentally picture these characters. Descriptions include humour and are interesting to read, especially out loud, because of the use of language.
“What children think is funny is unique to their developmental stage” (Kolb, 2010. Online). Roald Dahl obviously understands different developmental stages of humour because he can pitch the humour in his books to his target readers. Early humour focuses on incongruities, such as unexpected and ridiculous events. The later development of humour is often focused on linguistic ambiguities and what Dahl accomplishes this so well, by simple techniques. “Sophie took the book out of his hand. ‘Nicholas Nickleby,’ she read aloud. ‘By Dahl’s Chickens.’ The BFG said.” (Dahl, 2009c. Page 105). “Humour marks important stages in the child’s intellectual development, and so do books, but only a humorous book provides that uniquely accessible combination of education and enjoyment.” (Kolb, 2010, Online). Because Dahl understands what children find funny, he continues to appeal to his target audience.
Dahl’s first books were published in the 1960’s, ‘James and the Giant Peach’, published in 1961 and ‘Charlie and the chocolate factory’, in 1964. Both these books are still popular today. They reached such a level of popularity that they have both been adapted for film. ‘James and the giant peach’ was adapted for film in 1996 and ‘Charlie and the chocolate factory’ in 1971 (Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory). In 2005 the book was adapted once again for film, this time directed by Tim Burton and starring renowned actors including Johnny Depp. Both books and films have worldwide appeal. From the 1960’s children’s books including ‘Stig of the dump’ by Clive King, ‘Tom’s midnight garden’ by Philippa Pearce and ‘The Borrowers’ by Mary Norton reached the height of their popularity. ‘Tom’s midnight garden’ and ‘The borrowers’ were also adapted for film and television but Pearce and Norton’s popularity with children has never reached that of Dahl. Although these books are viewed as classic children’s novels, unlike Dahl, they are not as relevant to children today as they were 50 years ago. Other authors from the 1960’s are noticeably dated in language and themes when reading, unlike Dahl’s novels. “He looked his goodbye at the garden, and raged that he had to leave it – leave it and Peter. They had planned to spend their time here so joyously these holidays.” (Pearce, 1978. Page 7). This is the opening chapter of ‘Tom’s midnight garden’ and the narrator is describing a desire of the main character, Tom. Not only is the language dated but also the activities that the character is participating in. This is not something that is found in Dahl novels. In Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the chocolate factory’ the opening chapter similarly expresses a boy’s innermost desires: “He desperately wanted something more filling and satisfying than cabbage and cabbage soup. The one thing he longed for more than anything else was . . . CHOCOLATE.” (Dahl, 2001d. Page 16). Dahl’s characters desires or activities are always relevant so that children can relate to them, in this case, food, chocolate. Even though ‘Charlie and the chocolate factory’ was published in 1961, Dahl’s language is never dated. Another noticeable difference between these and Dahl’s novels for children is that Dahl’s writing is humorous from start to finish. Previously this essay has discussed Dahl’s use of intense detail when describing characters; this is one of Dahl’s signature techniques that he uses in all of his books. This results in the reader being able to imagine the character vividly and take an instant liking, or disliking, to the character. “…a nine-year-old boy who was so enormously fat he looked as though he had been blown up with a powerful pump.” (Dahl, 2001d. Page 36). This description is comical and when reading other popular books from this same period it is noticeable they do not have the same levels of humour as Dahl’s books. “Something, or Somebody, had a lot of shaggy black hair and two bright black eyes that were looking very hard at Barney.” (King, 1970. Page 10). Dahl’s humour appeals to children of the 21st century, who are able to appreciate his comedy just as well as children from the late 20th century, contributing to the longevity of his success as a children’s novelist. Books that were published in previous decades, even up until the 1970’s, were commonly marketed at one particular gender. The front page of ‘Stig of the dump’ has a short preface and the final lines include; “It will suit boys of seven to ten particularly, but will please adventurous girls as well.” (King, 1970. Page 1). Dahl’s books have never been aimed at either of the sexes and have always been enjoyed by both. In contrast to popular children’s authors of the late 20th century, Dahl succeeds in doing this by creating characters, themes and situations that are associated with both boys and girls. Dahl’s main female roles are never gender-stereotyped but, like his male characters are equally interested in adventures, magic and defeating their oppressor. He incorporates topics that appeal to both sexes regardless of the sex of the main protagonist in the novel, such as food, animals, exploration and magic. “I PUT THE MAGIC FINGER ON THEM ALL!” (Dahl, 1995. Page 4). Many of the common themes in Dahl’s poetry and his books are issues that children can relate to such as unfairness and unkindness. Children are also able to understand universal topics like food and dirt which are relevant to all children, regardless of the era in which they are living. Additionally, children may be attracted to topics within Dahl’s books, especially magic, therefore widening his appeal.
In a year 2000 survey, British readers named Roald Dahl as their favorite author. Around the world, more than ten million copies of his books sold in 2004. (Talbot, 2005. Online). As well as winning the 1983 Whitbread prize, and many of his books turned into films Roald Dahl’s popularity has endured for over 50 years. Dahl builds his characters with detailed descriptions, strong imagery and by his use of humorous references, is able to grasp the reader’s attention throughout. His amazing imagination and sense of humour provides children and adults with new and fresh ideas. Children are able to relate to the main characters in Dahl’s books and find much to empathise with as well as to be entertained by. Dahl’s appeal so far, has not become dated because of his unique ability to use language and humour to such effect. Dahl is not only successful in creating popular story books but also poetry, creating witty twists to them and dabbling in taboo. His books appeal to young children through to adolescents and also to the many adults that read to their children. Dahl believed that all children’s books should be comical and he certainly achieves this.
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