London Review of Books

Common Threads: A Child Let Loose

Writing about children’s literature in the LRB archive

Drawing of the silhouette of a teapot, cup and spoons on a yellow background, by Peter Campbell.

‘Roald Dahl’s style,’ Colin Burrow writes in the latest issue, ‘Hemingway for kids with added wrinkles and twinkles and lashings of chocolate, a splash of Belloc here and a glug of Lewis Carroll there, with the odd word like “fizzwangle” or “goonswaggle” to make the mixture effervesce, often seems to be pushing out of view very nasty things that it doesn’t want fully to acknowledge.’ In the manuscript version of Matilda, the heroine is ‘a vengeful nightmare of a child who tries to fix a horse race’ and Miss Honey loses all her money through compulsive gambling. Dahl rewrote the story following the suggestion of his American publisher, Stephen Roxburgh, who wanted Matilda to become ‘something adults might feel happy to read to their kids’. It sold half a million copies in its first six months, but, as Burrow notes, ‘it isn’t true that half a million people can’t be wrong, as anyone who’s ever scanned the results of an election will know.’

Jenny Diski remembered, in 1994, the last time she read Dahl to her seven-year-old daughter. If adults can’t bear to read Dahl’s stories, she realised, so much the better: ‘Then childhood nirvana is attained.’ She would continue to buy his books, only her daughter would have to read them herself. ‘I now have a handy 16-year-old, close enough to back then to recall what it was like being a child and reading Dahl’s books. With a surprised blink of childhood pleasure recollected, she explained: “They were exactly what I wanted to be reading. Every one of them. They filled me with . . . glee.”’

Read more about what makes children laugh, the great virtue of the orphan story and the power of myth in a world full of grown-ups, in the LRB archive.

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