Sunday, 5 September 2010

Bookish Bits & Bobs: Roald Dahl Day

A day celebrating the life and works of one of Britain's greatest children's authors, Roald Dahl, is being commemorated all around the UK (and indeed the world - why not?!) on September 13, the birthday of the magnificent man himself. It is rare of me to do two columns in one month (which is what will happen this September due to the release of the Booker shortlist), but Roald Dahl Day seemed to me to be too good to pass up. And with events going on all over the place on the day itself, there's no reason why anybody should have to pass it up: according to the Times, fans can enjoy everything from a musical version of Matilda in Wolverhampton to a quiz on the author at the Bishop's Stortford branch of Waterstones, as well as usual and added delights of the Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden (including a sweet-making workshop - do you really need to be persuaded?!). The website gives more info on all of these.

But it all got me thinking about the author who captured - and continues to capture - children's imaginations around the world. While other children's authors have come under fire for being politically incorrect, classist, racist, or just generally outmoded, Dahl's books seem immune to such criticism (or, indeed, criticism of any other kind). So why is he different?

While the lives of other children's authors have attracted interest, Dahl arguably surpasses them all in having a life as fascinating and at times as gruesome as the books that he wrote. He was a sportsman and an art aficionado; a traveller and a Hollywood luvvie; a serviceman and and a scientist; an oenologist and a philanthropist, as well as a writer. No other children's author can claim ownership of autobiographies as intriguing and readable as Boy and Going Solo, which can be enjoyed by children and adults alike for their descriptions of his various scrapes in school and in the armed forces. This all leads on to the obvious: people do not abandon his work once they have passed a certain age. Dahl is somehow able to keep people consistently entertained throughout their lives - readers return to his children's books for nostalgia purposes, but start on his short stories and autobiographies as teenagers and keep coming back to those as well, with them being just as addictive as his children's books.

So that's what makes people stay, but why do they come to him to begin with? Quentin Blake's unforgettable illustrations, and (some of) the movies and TV adaptations made of his works, certainly contribute to the sustained interest in his books. But people pick up one book after another regardless of age, because as well as being a master of dark twists and deft prose, Dahl does not patronise children. Even though he plays on the themes that appeal to children, such as outsmarting adults, talking animals, and the child winning through in the end, Dahl is able to mix the magic and the tragic eclectically in a way that makes him unique. He does not shy away from scaring children with evil witches and man-eating giants, just as much as he does not shy away from delighting them. Equally, the suspense that is built, in conjunction with creating characters we can care about, keeps people coming back.

His dexterous use of language is also worth mentioning twice - The BFG is perhaps a prime example of Dahl's imaginative and amusing wordplay, and it is perhaps therefore even more astonishing that Dahl's books have been successful the world over in spite of the problems that they must have posed for translators. More than this, too, Dahl's own creations encourage children to create for themselves. Among the fond memories of my childhood are games with my sister where we used cucumber for snozzcumbers and lemonade for frobscottle, and while other books also penetrated my childhood in this way (re-enacting scenes from Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden using Sylvanian Families springs to mind), they perhaps lacked Dahl's winning combination of fantasy, reality, and originality. (As far as my love of The Secret Garden went, there were plenty of other Victorian and Edwardian works of literature that I could - and did - turn to for little-girl-lost style stories, but nothing comes to mind that is quite like the universes that Dahl created.)

All of this amounts to something quite simply indescribable. It was this uncapturable sentiment felt towards Dahl and his work that somehow led to me bursting into tears a few years ago during a documentary about his life. The combination of the remarkable man with his remarkable work has something really moving about it. But the good thing about successful authors is that they never really die, living on in their works. Ars longa, vita brevis, as they say. In my world at least, every day is Roald Dahl Day.

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