It’s been a whole hundred years since the much-loved children’s author Roald Dahl was brought into the world, and although he sadly passed away in 1990 his fantastical stories are still very much in the public limelight, with over 100 million copies of his books being thumbed through by eager kids worldwide. I’ve ransacked my childhood bookshelf and dusted off my five favourite Dahl books, much to my inner child’s nostalgic pleasure.
This well-known and loved tale about a girl with extraordinary powers and even more extraordinary intelligence couldn’t not make the list.
Although it was first released in 1988, it has stayed in the public limelight with a film adaptation starring Mara Wilson and Danny DeVito and the recent musical featuring music by Tim Minchin. The book has continued to pull audiences with adorable Matilda and her sugar-sweet teacher Miss Honey winning hearts, whilst headmistress Miss Trunchbull terrifies us into continuing to turn the pages.
It ends with Miss Trunchbull being scared out of her house by Matilda’s levitation powers, reassuring us that any nasty adults will get what’s coming to them, in the end. It boasts effortless childish magic, and besides, any book with a character called something as awesome as Bruce Bogtrotter deserves a special mention, right?
This 1983 novel about a secret (and very dangerous) institution of witches who hold their annual international meeting in a somewhat dysfunctional hotel is quite brilliant. The story, despite being less widely known than other Dahl novels, was put on the big screen in 1990 and quite often makes Sunday afternoon TV.
Although it’s on the darker side of Dahl’s fiction – several attempted murders and the transformation of two central characters into mice hardly constitutes as a ‘light-hearted’ storyline – it still has the flair of Dahl’s classic novels, and remains one of my favourite children’s books to this day. I just have yet to get over the fact that the protagonist was literally turned into a mouse.
Who else dares to turn their main man into a mouse less than halfway through the book? Brilliant.
Anyone who says they don’t like the story of Mr and Mrs Twit is lying, straight up.
This book is a marvellous little tale about a miserable, mischievous old couple who spend their lives playing practical jokes on each other. Probably my favourite prank in the book is Mr Twit’s cunning scheme to convince his wife that she’s shrinking: he gradually adds small pieces of wood to furniture legs and her walking stick so that over time she ends up much shorter than everything in the house, certain that she’s getting smaller.
It’s just a fun story with wormy spaghetti, a glass eye masquerading as an ice cube and everything in between. These kinds of practical jokes continue back and forth between the two, creating massively entertaining reading for kids (and adults too, let’s be honest) and genius pranks that no doubt have been used since.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The oldest – and probably most famous – book in this list is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the tale of whimsical chocolatier Willy Wonka and the five children he invites to see his factory.
We all know the story – two films and a musical later we’d never forget it – but not everyone knows the moral basis of the central characters. Each of the ‘rotten’ children is supposed to represent a deadly sin: Augustus is gluttony; Veruca is greed, Violet pride and Mike sloth.
Their punishments and positions by the end of the book serve to show children that selfish traits are unlikely to result in happiness, and that honest Charlie is rewarded because of his natural kindness (although there have been claims that Charlie represents lust, making him just as bad as the other kids, really).
One of the least common of Dahl’s books, Boy is an autobiography telling tales from childhood up until he left school in the 1930s.
Reading it as an eight- or nine-year-old, I remember being astonished at his accounts of the canings at school, and marvelling at the independence he seemed to have from such an early age (his parents actually let him go play in the park? By himself?).
As much as I enjoy the eccentric, magical world that so many of his fiction comes from, it was really interesting to hear the same playful narrative voice talk about his own story, and the sometimes silly, sometimes tragic events that shaped his childhood and clearly influenced the stories that we read and come to love.