Tuesday 16 January 2018

Giant of kid's novels Dahl fired imaginations with his humanity

By david looby

Children's author Roald Dahl.
Children's author Roald Dahl.

THIS WEEK marks the centenary of the birth of Roald Dahl, a man who made us squirm, burst into laughter and recoil in horror at his wonderful characters.

Walking into my local library recently I was confronted with a giant, a 15 foot BFG no less, who had children enraptured with his stories and booming voice. The fact that Dahl's characters have such a hold on childen's imaginations today is testament to the timeless appeal of his books, think Matilda, the gifted schoolgirl with envious powers who proves too much for The Trunchbull, Danny The Champion of the World, The Witches, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, James & The Giant Peach, the list goes on.

The ubiquity of tablets and smartphones will hopefully spawn a counter culture towards reading paperbacks by authors like Dahl again and here's one reason: a study in 2014 found that readers using a Kindle were significantly worse than paperback readers at recalling when events occurred in a mystery story. Call me old fashioned and a hypocrite, (my book count has been two per year at best), but I prefer the tangible feel of a paperback to the silk-screen swiping of a tablet any day. I have a new mission in life and that is to read a lot more, including books on my shelf which make me look a lot more edumacated than I am.

Dahl was one of the great creators of words and the Big Friendly Giant has more than 200. Consider: Swigpill (disgusting food), Whizzpopping (wind), Kiddles (children), Bopmuggered (one of six words for caught), Goggler (an eye) anon.

One could be forgiven for accusing Dahl of writing having ingested too much sherbet, such is the giddiness of his prose. His love of children is evident throughout his work and it informs every page.

Dahl lived a fascinating life, working at exotic locations throughout the world from a young age. He lived in Newfoundland, Tanzania, fought in battles as a fighter pilot in World War II. Dahl crash-landed in Alexandria, Egypt. The plane crash left him with serious injuries to his skull, spine and hip. Dahl married film actress Patricia Neal, who won an Academy Award for her role in Hud in 1961. The marriage lasted three decades and they had five children, one of whom, Olivia, tragically died of measles in 1962.

The wild imagingings which went on to sell around 250 million books were no doubt first aired in his children's bedroom. There is a humanity to his writing and a love of nature which resonates. This humanity was borne of a life with no shortage of difficulty.

When Dahl was four years old, his father died. Dahl's son Theo suffered brain injuries when he was hit by a taxi in New York in 1961. Dahl, along with some friends, invented a valve to treat fluid on his son Theo's brain. Dahl cared for his wife, who suffered from three aneurysms while pregnant, nursing her back to health.

His devotion and love for his children bursts from the pages of his books which were written in pencil on yellow paper in a small hut at the bottom of his garden. He was the most consistently brilliant children's authors in the world from the 1960s. He also wrote the screenplays for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Bond movie You Only Live Twice. Dahl originally wrote short stories for adults which were later published as Tales of the Unexpected.

As The Whirlwind Princess begins her primary schooling it won't be long before she is diving into the worlds of this giant of literature and I'll be just as excited.

Wexford People

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