Re-Reading Roald

What makes Dahl’s books so special?

Leo Cookman

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In 2023 I decided to return to my childhood and reread (or read for the first time in some cases) Roald Dahl’s children’s books. Without knowing it, I struck the zeitgeist, as 2023 was a big year for the Dahl brand, for both good and ill. I’ve discussed all that in a previous article but after reading them all, I knew I wanted to talk about what I found in these books, beyond the limited scope of contemporary social discussions, because there is a LOT to say.

Rather than talking about each book individually (a mammoth task) I instead want to talk about some of things that make them so special. Dahl got a lot wrong and many parts seem dated, but — in far more cases — he remains utterly of today. I’ve boiled down what I have found to be his key understandings about children, or simply the world in which we live, and why that is still so appealing to everyone, but specifically to children.

Size and Scale

It seems a simple thing, and a lot of books do it, but Dahl’s ideas are fully aware of how big the world is to a child. As adults we return to places we inhabited as children and often say how small things are, or “it’s smaller than I remember”. This is a literal truth, you were smaller, so it was bigger. Dahl both subverts and enhances this sensation from his first big hit (his book Gremlins is difficult to get hold of and often not seen as ‘canon’, so I skipped it).

James and The Giant Peach is this concept of an ‘altered scale’ writ large. The clue is in the title. The peach isn’t just large to James, it’s giant to everyone. Immediately Dahl recalibrates the world to put adults in a space that offers the same perspective as a child. We are returned to our own childhood by suddenly seeing the bigness of something as ordinary as a peach.

In George’s Marvelous Medicine, George’s potion makes everyone that drinks it huge. As alarming and as wonderful as this is to George, it is just as impactful to everyone in the book. Not only that, it instills in an adult reader the same wonder as it would in a child, because we are shrunk, the world…

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Leo Cookman

Peripatetic Writer. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.