September 13, 2010
Big Important Giant
Today is Roald Dahl’s birthday. He’s dead, alas, but if he wasn’t, he’d be ninety-four. It’s time to take a break from endlessly tooting my own horn here, and toot his. Or rather, his work's.
Dahl gave us whole worlds in his books – worlds at once fantastical and familiar. He told us the truth – a commodity that’s often hard to come by in childhood. And the truth is that life can be a bugger – one filled with dead parents, rotten aunts, and twits. He showed us the sadness of childhood, the loneliness, and the cruelty. Maybe the truth should have scared us, maybe it would have, if he hadn’t also told us how to cope with it: spend money you really don’t have on chocolate bars, fly off in a giant peach, and when the going really gets tough, apply for a library card.
Sam Anderson, book critic for New York magazine, wrote a piece on Dahl last week. It's fascinating, for the most part, and I enjoyed it until I got to this bit, which really pissed me off:
“Dahl’s career as an important novelist never took off. Finally, he gave up on it and channeled his big ambition into minor forms: short stories and, later, children’s books.”
So novelists are only important if they write for adults? And children’s books are merely a minor form of literature? What an insult to Dahl, to children’s writers past and present, and most of all, to children.
Children who read James and the Giant Peach – as well as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Golden Compass, A Wrinkle in Time, The Hobbit, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Grimm’s fairytales, and Charlotte’s Web – are not reading these books simply because they can’t sound out the big words in Pynchon and DeLillo. Children are reading these books because they bravely and artfully tackle the big questions of human existence – which is what any good novel is supposed to do.
Children read for the same reasons adults do – for answers, for inspiration, to be consoled, and for the sheer joy of it. They read with enormous passion, devotion, and insight, and Anderson owes them something more, something better, than to dismissively categorize their literature as minor.
With best wishes,