Matilda, like so many of Roald Dahl’s books, has become an absolute classic of children’s literature, and for good reason. Matilda is a very young girl who is pretty much left to fend for herself, since her mother’s too busy playing bingo and her father’s too busy fiddling dodgy second-hand cars to have any time for her. She is also extraordinarily bright, and mostly self-taught. She attends a school run by the formidable Miss Trunchbull (who is extremely ill-suited to run a school considering her loathing of children); while there, she develops telekinetic powers due to lack of intellectual mental stimulation, despite the efforts of her lovely class teacher Miss Honey, who tries to help Matilda to reach her full potential. Matilda decides to use her newfound powers to help Miss Honey and punish Miss Trunchbull which means that, when she succeeds, she is able to move in with Miss Honey, live happily, and have some lovely bread and jam for tea.
I love Roald Dahl. To be honest, I think it’s impossible to find anyone who doesn’t. I would go so far as to say that he has remained one of the most popular children’s writers of all time. He has such a great way with language, it’s like he’s the Oscar Wilde for children. Not that old Oscar’s not suitable for children, but he does like to use some rather big and flamboyant words, and I always found his children’s fairy tales rather upsetting and sad. But having said that, Roald Dahl’s books are quite unconventional in the sense that they are famously rather dark and, at times, pretty scary for children, particularly if, like me, you were the sort of child who had a rather overactive imagination and was very good at convincing/tricking yourself into believing it. I can remember this overactive imagination coming into play when I was climbing on my Grampy’s garden wall after reading The Witches, and absolutely convinced myself that the lady walking down the road towards me was clearly a witch. Naturally I ran back towards the house and stared at her in terror from a safe distance and she gave me a rather funny look, which was probably fair enough considering, although I was certain it was because she knew that I knew. Obviously I didn’t get close enough to see if her feet were square or if her spit was blue, but she could quite easily have been wearing a wig and, I’m sure, was more than capable of turning me into a mouse or, even more horrifying, an incredibly dull painting. (This isn’t a habit I ever grew out of, which is why, just the other week and at the grand old age of twenty three, I could be found lying awake at four in the morning, with the light on and my head under the covers, protecting myself with the aid of a duvet shield from what I had convinced myself was the sound of a scary, woman-in-black type ghosty thing, climbing out of my computer screen at the foot of my bed. I was kept awake by this for a whole hour, I kid you not. At twenty three years old! What’s even more embarrassing is the fact that I had to employ the Harry Potter riddikulus technique to make myself feel better. Obviously there was no chanting of spells or waving of wands (I was trying to remain inconspicuous beneath my duvet remember), but I did employ the dispersal-of-fear-through-humour technique by imagining that it was really Nanny McPhee lurking underneath the dark gown and heavy hood of my woman-in-black (who didn’t exist and most definitely wasn’t trying to climb out of my computer screen). You’ll be pleased to know it worked a treat).
The thing is, sometimes children like to be a bit scared. They like to be kept on their toes and made to jump and squirm and panic, and then laugh at themselves afterwards. This is where Roald Dahl really comes into his own. He doesn’t namby-pamby around children and fill his books with rainbows and lollipops and fluffy kittens riding unicorns on tricycles. He gives them a bit of a fright and he makes them feel a bit uneasy, but safe in the knowledge that it’s alright to be a bit scared for now because everything will turn out well in the end. Roald Dahl has produced many scary characters – the Red-Hot Smoke-Belching Gruncher of The Minpins (my first exploration into the world of Roald Dahl), the witches of The Witches (obviously), Miss Trunchbull from Matilda, the man-eating giants from The BFG and perhaps even The Twits. But it’s not just fear that he relies on either. There are a lot of characters in his books that aren’t frightening, but are unsettling and make you feel quite uneasy. George’s grandma in George’s Marvellous Medicine is a prime example of this, as is Willy Wonka from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.
Matilda is a typical Roald Dahl concoction. It has the fearsome character in the form of the dreaded Miss Trunchbull who flings children through the air by their pigtails and locks them in the dreaded chokey, a sort of iron maiden type torture device. It has sinister characters in the form of Matilda’s parents who are so disconnected from and uncaring about their children that it’s actually a bit chilling. It also has typical Dahlish dark elements with themes of child abuse and neglect, but these are balanced out with the appropriately named Miss Honey who plays a key role in achieving the story’s happy endings. It’s also filled with classic pranks and gags that (parents beware!) children will be dying to try out for themselves, like lining hat rims with superglue so they stick to the wearer’s head and, of course, swapping hair tonic with bleach. It’s genius stuff, and suitably moralistic for a children’s book in the sense that good will prevail and the crooks will be caught.
I read Roald Dahl’s books when I was very young, very young to be reading children’s books even, but I still return to them fairly regularly and I know many other people my age who do the same. I gave my sister a copy of The Minpins for her twenty fifth birthday recently, at her request, as it’s still one of her favourite books twenty years down the line. That’s the gift that Roald Dahl has which is the making of a perfect children’s book – a book that children will love but that adults will love to read to children too, or even just to read by themselves after a nasty day at work, or even a pleasant day at work for that matter. They are books that are suitable to be read by all ages of people for all manner of days. Obviously some credit must be given to Quentin Blake’s wonderfully distinctive illustrations, as I find it near impossible to think about a Roald Dahl book without them, but I think most of the appeal is due to Roald Dahl’s use of language. His books are filled with his wonderful descriptions and turns of phrase, and completely made up vocabulary which is simultaneously nonsensical and yet so descriptively accurate that it makes perfect sense. They’re fun to read, not just for the story and the slight thrills and chills and laugh out loud moments, but for the words themselves and the craft of his writing. He may have been seventy two when Matilda was published in 1988, but judging by his writing it certainly seems to me that the reason he wrote so well for children is because he remained a big kid throughout his life and never lost his childish sense of fun, and I think that’s something we should all aim for if we want to keep smiles on our faces.
If you feel like there’s just not enough Roald Dahl in your life and that Matilda the book wasn’t quite enough to keep you going, I would also recommend watching the slightly elaborated but rather lovely film version, starring Danny DeVito and the adorably baby-faced Mara Wilson. Alternatively, if you’re more of the jazz-hands-theatrical variety, I hear tell that you can also see a musical stage show created by the multi-talented Tim Minchpin. Whatever your preferred medium, there’s a version of Matilda for all!