Guess who's birthday it is?! You might know Roald Dahl as the beloved children’s author who created Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Matilda, or you might know him as the guy who wrote an entire (in fact multiple) books about farts. Either way, you probably spent a night or two as a child waiting up for the “witching hour,” to see if any dreams were headed your way. Possibly, you harbor an irrational fear of being trapped inside a painting, where you will age, feeding the chickens into eternity. TBH, I’ve spent not a small number of nights out at parties looking at my phone and realizing, “Crumbs! It’s the witching hour already! I’ve got to get to bed!” (Sparklers, this is not a bad rule to live by: if you’re out past 1, you’re going to feel rotten the next day.)
While you’ve probably read The BFG, Fantastic Mister Fox, Charlie, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches and so on, some of Dahl’s lesser-known (non-screen-adapted) books are fantastic as well. The Twits, George’s Marvelous Medicine, Danny, Champion of the World and The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me are just a couple of numbers robbed of the Pulitzer prize. But my all-time favorites are Dahl’s two autobiographies.
Boy: Tales of Childhood is a collection of stories about Dahl’s experiences at boarding school, the time he almost lost his nose, the time he put goat poop in his sister’s boyfriend’s pipe, and the roly-poly days of non-anesthetized dental work(!). There are lots of clues as to the ideas for his later books from childhood stories of mischief and bog-warming. Dahl volunteered as a chocolate taster for new creations from an English confectioner, and would write complex reviews of each chocolate’s qualities and taste-ways; the seed for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Likewise, the frightening headmaster he encountered at an English form school, who gave him a walloping with the cane, is recalled in the viking-like Miss Trumbull in Matilda.
Going Solo picks up the story after high school, when Dahl headed for Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania to work for Shell Oil, just prior to World War II breaking out. If you think your own grandparents are a little wacky, you’ll be blown away by his descriptions of naked colonialists jogging the decks of his ship each morning as it cruised down the Suez Canal. The book segues into stories from Dahl’s career as the gangliest fighter pilot of all time in the war, flying out over Egypt to Turkey with his knees up around his chin in the cockpit, and being shot down over the desert—a time he describes as a wild adventure. It also spurred Dahl’s first published piece of writing; a retelling of his crash and recovery.
And therein lies the glory in Dahl’s work: that he’s more than a little bit inspiring for us gangly, adenoidal wannabe writers. To wit, a quote from the big man himself: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory took me a terrible long time to write. The first time I did it, I got everything wrong.”
Has Roald Dahl influenced your writing or taste in books?