Dear Mr. Dahl,
When I was about five my mum bought me a copy of ‘Revolting Rhymes’, your book of reimagined fairy tales. I could read pretty well by then. There was a lot of head-chopping. You called Cinderella a slut. My favourite was Little Red Riding Hood:
‘The young girl smiles,one eyelid flickers
she whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head
and bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.’
It was the 1980s. I think we have tightened up on parenting since then.
In grade four I had a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Barber. She read ‘Matilda’ aloud to us, and it blew my mind. I decided that I was like her in every way (the fact that I had loving parents who gave me inappropriate books, a kindly principal and no magic powers notwithstanding), and this quiz I took today on your official website confirms that this is still true. Mrs. Barber let me borrow books from her special shelf and bring home to read, and I was more careful with them than I was with my three year old sister, whom I generally kept trapped under a laundry basket.
I loved your books. They were saucy. They were scary. They were witty as hell. You understood about being a child; you understood how big and unfair things could feel. You understood that being a kid lasted a really long time, longer than we remember later. You knew that we could handle witches and giants and chopping heads off. We knew you were mostly kidding. You empowered us to face life, to stand up to the enemies and to trust the benefactors, and not to take shit from grownups, because sometimes they were mean, and sometimes they were wrong, and sometimes we were smarter.
I grew up. It happens.
I’m a teacher now. It is September, and I feel a little overwhelmed already. I have the nicest class I’ve ever had, and I am still exhausted after only two weeks. They are sweet and lively, and I know I will have a lovely time with them. What a gift. I have my own bookshelf that the kids can borrow from. It is full of your books.
It’s an adjustment, though, after nine weeks without children, after hikes and patios and silence. It is interesting that my return to children coincided with what would have been your 100th birthday. There have been many celebrations, much reflection on your work. It is interesting, too, that this anniversary is so close to the passing of the beautiful Gene Wilder, who brilliantly immortalized your Willy Wonka. A live action film of ‘The BFG ‘has only recently left the theatres, and posters for the stage musical ‘Matilda’ are plastered all over my city. It is remarkable how present you are.
It is interesting too, as I have been reading more about you, what rises to the surface. You were a bit of a tricky character, it seems. I probably wouldn’t have wanted to have you over for dinner. Hephzibah Anderson writes about this better than I could. It begs the question of whether these stories for children still stand, and the answer, I think, is yes. Your stories are not sweet (unless you consider the overriding presence of chocolate). They do not pretend that a child’s world is safe or without challenges. The children you write about are neglected, malnourished, orphaned, rejected, reduced, even eaten.
What is different, in your story world, is the presence of magic. Little girls can move things with their minds, and converse with giants, and become blueberries. Little boys can run chocolate empires, live in peaches, take down witches. There are greater possibilities in your worlds, fewer boundaries.
What happens to us as children stays with us (just ask my little sister how she feels about laundry baskets). What we read as children is the same. I can remember books that I read as a child as vividly as if it were last week, but can hardly remember what I read last week (actually I do – it was the new Maggie Smith bio and it is overdue at the library). So much is lost when we grow up. We stop looking for giants in the lamplight outside our windows. But we all hold, in some part of ourselves, whatever child we were. We still feel the dangers and the threats and we still seek the magic. We are still hoping we are wrong.
This is the gift of children, and teaching. I get to live in their world for a few hours a day. I get to feel what it felt like. This is why I read ‘Revolting Rhymes’ to my kiddos every year (relax, they are in grade seven), and why I revel in watching their delighted shock. I’m drawing out all of the magic I can.
Wish us a good year,