Roald Dahl is SPARKY

On the last page of Danny the Champion of the World, Roald Dahl includes “A Message to Children who have Read this Book — When you grow up and have children of your own, do please remember something important: a stodgy parent is no fun at all.  What a child wants and deserves is a parent who is SPARKY.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Dahl lately.

Three of my students have chosen to write (at least in part) on Mr. Dahl, author of Matilda, one of my favorite books of all time.  This is surprising, because we read only one piece by Dahl all semester, his poem “Little Red Riding Hood andthe Wolf,” which I managed to wedge into our discussion of fairy tales.  And yet I’m discovering that it isn’t unusual for students in a children’s literature course to choose paper topics that require additional reading.  After all, reading (or rereading) the Harry Potter books, or Beatrix Potter, or The Secret Garden isn’t, to most students, drudgery but instead a refreshing break in a series of lab reports and quadratic equations and physics finals.

Many of my students at Rice are in the sciences.

Anyway.  I’m finding that Dahl is a special case.  Sure, people feel nostalgic about his books just as they feel nostalgic about a lot of children’s literature.  Maybe James and the Giant Peach or George’s Marvelous Medicine sat on their bookshelves next to titles that inspire similar warm fuzzies, such as Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth or L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables or even the toddler text The Poky Little Puppy, a Golden Book that immediately transports me back to days of jelly shoes and pigtails.

But Dahl isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy.  He’s scaly and slimy and covered in goo.  He’s furry, but somewhere under there is a bare, pink paw with sharp claws.  There will be bugs and boogers and always a newt, that reptile with a name that, as a child, I savored as foreign and exotic in a very British way.  He’s irreverent and funny at the expense of the bullies, the heavy-browed, and the adults, which is probably why he often found himself on the banned books lists.  His potty humor and his love of subversive, smart children doesn’t sit well with the more conservative librarians and authority figures policing children’s libraries (like Sarah Palin!).  Quentin Blake’s illustrations, of course, are partially (and wonderfully) responsible.

For those of us who want to celebrate Dahl — and I think we outnumber those who want to pull him off the shelves, a circumstance that allows us to gang up on the Dahl naysayers — he’s one of those authors who translates easily from childhood to adult reading.  While my research into children’s literature prevents me from claiming any kind of special access into children’s heads, which would lead to dangerous and irresponsible scholarship, I do suspect that, as a child, the reaction to Dahl might be something like, “Yes!  Someone who gets it.  Rivers of chocolate and life-size insects.”  As adults, we’re reminded through an aside to children-in-the-know that we should be sparky instead of stodgy, a warning that is somehow simultaneously ridiculous and right.

Thinking about Dahl makes me jealous of my students writing about him.  I have project envy, a condition that often strikes graduate students late in their careers.  Or, apparently, new PhDs.  Is it too late to begin an entire career on Dahl?  Do you think I could find a tenure-track position in Dahl Studies?

I think I’ll begin rereading the classics and renting Fantastic Mr. Fox.

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