Today is officially Roald Dahl Day– a chance to celebrate everything wonderful about the work and life of Roald Dahl on what would have been his 95th birthday. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of James and the Giant Peach.
We’re big fans of Roald here at The Reader Organisation and his adult short stories, children’s classics and poems are all used in our groups. In my experience of Get Into Reading, Dahl’s stories have been the best to read aloud with children. The larger than life characters and wonderfully pleasing to say made up words are such a joy to meet, say and hear that everybody involved has wanted to have a turn reading them. For one boy it was a chance to discover all the characters everybody else in his class already knew about and for a lunchtime group I ran in Childwall it was a chance to find out just how funny a book could be; in a week my group swelled from three to twenty attendees who had all heard about an exciting, funny, scary story about witches who had a boss with ‘the funniest voice you’ll ever hear’. The numbers stayed that way for the rest of the year as everybody wanted to take a turn ‘speaking in the high shrrrill woice like they arrrrre the Grand High Vitch!’.
In real life Dahl was a wickedly fun story teller who never switched off; he would make up recipes for his children, marmalade and bacon sandwiches, and tell them it was a secret from the Sheik of whenever his daughters had friends around for sleepovers they would wake in the middle of the night to find Dahl gently rousing them. Still groggy he would lead them downstairs before slinking outside armed only with a torch and slippers. Their destination would be underneath the railway bridge in the village where Dahl would improvise ghost stories in the dark to the deafening rattle of coal and royal mail trains overhead. The children were ten years old and exhilarated.
I think the reason Dahl remains so well regarded is his ability to create a ghastly, seemingly inescapable environment that miraculously gets left behind through a fantastical sequence of events; extreme poverty overcome by a golden ticket, a blood thirsty siege resolved by fast digging and a superhuman (fox?) ability to smell, a bullying teacher beaten by telekinesis and coupled with this, a strong sense that all his stories had to be fun. James and the Giant Peach is another great example of this; from the utterly detestable imprisonment of James by his two aunts, Spiker and Sponge, emerges a transatlantic escape story aboard a flying fruit with giant, talking insects!
A staunch advocate of children reading for pleasure, Dahl insisted that reading was essential for everybody and that without it you couldn’t do anything in life. He would never judge somebody by what they liked to read as long as they read something. His own writing was simply an extension of this desire and so he tried to make it as interesting as possible for children by ‘grabbing them by the throat with the first sentence’ and cramming it full of new people and words at all times. Despite this he was always reluctant to be labelled as a children’s author stating that his work was there for everybody to enjoy:
‘There are many books written just for adults but there are no books written just for children.’
So how will you celebrate today? Why not pick one of your favourites and read it aloud with family or friends or even give an as yet unread one a try? That’s what I’ll be doing with The Minpins and The Vicar of Nibbleswicke. If, however, you’re looking at planning something bigger then here’s how our very own Eleanor Stanton did it 5 years ago:
I did a fantastic Roald Dahl Celebration when I was a school librarian in Birmingham. We played music from Willy Wonka, wore an item of clothing back to front, wore something yellow (as this was Roald Dahl’s favourite colour), read extracts from The Twits, Esio Trot and The Witches as well as Revolting Rhymes, Designed our own revolting recipes, had a competition for the best Dahl-esq insult (with prizes) and did a Roald Dahl Quiz. All washed down with Dahl food, such as frobscottle (Schloer to you and me), snozcumbers (cucumbers), A HUGE chocolate cake and wormy spaghetti. It was the best fun I have ever had. Totally recommend it. (The library was an absolute mess afterwards, though – kept finding “spaghetti bookmarks” for weeks afterwards)!
My favourite Roald Dahl story would have to be either Fantastic Mr Fox or The Twits with my favourite ever characters being the three farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean, Mr Twit and Augustus Gloop. My favourite to use in groups is Revolting Rhymes, especially ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and my favourite Dahl words to say are ‘Whangdoodles’ and ‘Snozzwhangers’. What are yours?