Roald Dahl’s 100th birthday (or would-have been-birthday—-why do we celebrate these? Surely there is some other more meaningful anniversary for Mr. Dahl we could celebrate other than the one where he entered the world he is no longer in? Anyway.) and the internet had some thoughts, some better than others.
The ones in the BBC article, “The Dark Side of Roald Dahl” (is there any other side?) by Hephzibah Anderson were a mixed bag. The article description looked fantastic,
Roald Dahl was an unpleasant man who wrote macabre books – and yet children around the world adore them. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us.
and the article content eventually lives up to it. But first 3/4 of the article adopts an unfortunate, though common (and as writer, really tempting!) strategy: it spends most of its words arguing against itself, before finally becoming convinced of its own thesis in the final paragraph. It’s supposed to seem Socratic, and it feels that way while it’s being written. The result, however, is almost always a vaguely confusing reading experience, and this is especially true in the BBC article’s case.
The worst is the stuff that’s just…..inaccurate, like the generalizations that “teachers tend to be villainous” in Dahl’s books and “fail to impart any real wisdom”—-sure, Matilda has the Trunchbull, but what about Miss Honey? She’s not brave, but she shows Matilda that life can sometimes be different, that it’s possible to carve out spaces of softness and affection despite external forces that push the opposite; what’s wiser than that?—-and, even worse, “female characters tend to be either warm or wicked and nothing in between”—-again, Matilda herself would so often have been a boy in the hands of another writer, and it means a lot that she wasn’t; but really there are quite many counterexamples (off the top of my head, Miss Spider, the Queen, Mrs. Fox).
But suggesting that Dahl’s legacy is morally dicey, and characterizing his commercial success as a not-entirely-positive oddity, strikes me as an unfair place to start talking about Dahl, even if that’s not where the discussion ends up. Anderson attributes Dahl’s darkness to his own deeply unpleasant childhood, reportedly teeming with precisely the kind of trauma he wrote about in his books: abuse, abandonment, and anti-sociality. Yet, strangely, though the article uses this biographical information to explain how Dahl got to be “unpleasant” person he was, it doesn’t take the obvious next step, which is to connect it to the life experience of his audience, until much later, and never explicitly.
Because childhood is often dark as hell: Dahl was not alone in his. Writing books for children that express dark childhoods, and reading books about dark childhoods, isn’t a sign that someone is warped and antisocial, but just the opposite: it’s an attempt at enfranchisement, at connecting.
We here at Dr. V’s Children’s Book List dot com enterprises heap praise on books about being kind, about rainbows and how wonderful things often are. But not everything is wonderful, or rainbows, all the time, and we need books for our darker days, too. We need books for the abandoned, abused, and ostracized: they deserve to imagine themselves floating above the city on a giant peach, or teaming up with a friendly giant and making life better for both of them, or encountering a truly kind person amidst the disappointing mess and using their gifts of the mind to create their own families.
Those at the BBC are likely to have a different relationship with Dahl than an American, and indeed, I can’t speak to some of Dahl’s less-ubiquitous works, such as The Witches, mentioned in the article. Anderson’s point about racism in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Dahl’s own anti-Semitism is an important one (and an angle I wish we saw more of in recaps of the careers of, say, Dr. Seuss). But balanced against the many, many paragraphs of reductive plot summaries and repudiations, only a few of which were even accurate, Anderson’s excellent final paragraph gets buried:
But it’s also worth recalling this: though childlike has come to refer to positive qualities associated with children, at its most basic, it simply means resembling a child. And as the magnificent Maurice Sendak observed, “In plain terms, a child is a complicated creature who can drive you crazy. There’s a cruelty to childhood, there’s an anger.” If Dahl’s books contain just one message for us adults, it’s the reminder that a child’s world isn’t all sweetness and light, it contains shadows too – extravagant, scary, wickedly entertaining ones.
Which is a shame, because, for me, this is where any conversation about Roald Dahl should start, not begrudgingly conclude. Because Dahl’s books are more than a curious, perhaps mildly unfortunate, phase in children’s book history. They’re important, because being brutally honest about the darkness while still inspiring belief in light is one of the most complicated tasks a writer can take on, and Dahl did it with more cleverness than most, for an audience that is often denied the opportunity to witness it.