I recently read James and the Giant Peach for the second time. I could have read Dahl in my own childhood, but have no memory of ever doing so. Indeed he was to remain a mystery to me until Master Wicker was in primary school and every one of his teachers seemed to use Roald Dahl for in-class reading. I now have a growing understanding of why he was so popular with these teachers. Roald Dahl is the modern master of writing for kids.
James and The Giant Peach was one of his earliest children's books. Published in 1961, it has become one of his best loved titles. But James has not been without controversy, being the 50th most challenged book of the 1990s in America.
I reread James recently, and have listened to the audio version in the car. It's rather fascinating to listen to an audio version of something that I've just read in the past few days- there are parts that seem as if I'm hearing them for the first time! I always thought that my attention wandered more with audiobooks than reading. Maybe that's not the case….
I first read JATGP a few years ago, and my memory of it was that I thought it was ok, but didn't love it. Seems that I liked it more than I remembered, I just checked out my review on goodreads:
I can't believe that my childhood was so deprived that I never read any Roald Dahl! I'm making up for lost time now though, and ensuring that my son doesn't have the same terrible childhood that I did without it. I can't believe that I'd escaped reading this book, or seeing the movie til now. It's a hoot. James is your typical kids book kid, orphaned and living with two aunts who are greedy, selfish, horrible and just plain mean. Spiker and Sponge are fantastic characters, and Dahl gets lots of mileage and humour out of them. James' life changes one day when a funny old man gives him a bag of magic green crystals. Which probably has quite a different connotation nearly 50 years on. I just loved the cloud men. And was interested to see mention made of skyhooks (obvious reference for any Australian of a certain age).
Dahl gave James such an idyllic life to start. But that was the first paragraph, and then it was cruelly taken away in the second paragraph, when he was orphaned at 4 years old.
Dahl uses a lot of anticipation and foreshadowing in JATGP.
After James Henry Trotter had been living with his aunts for three whole years there came a morning when something rather peculiar happened to him. And this thing, which as I say was only rather peculiar, soon caused a second thing to happen which was very peculiar. And then the very peculiar thing, in its own turn, caused a really fantastically peculiar thing to occur.
And of course there is the characteristic Dahl mix of the ridiculous, the gross and the magical, in what is one of his earliest books for children.
'Crocodile tongues!' he cried. 'One thousand long slimy crocodile tongues boiled up in the skull of a dead witch for twenty days and nights with the eyeballs of a lizard! Add the fingers of a young monkey, the gizzard of a pig, the beak of a green parrot, the juice of a porcupine, and three spoonfuls of sugar. Stew for another week, and then let the moon do the rest!'
It's great to see some Dahl trademarks being established so early in his writing career. Vermicious knids, snozzwangers and whangdoodles all feature. Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker are of course marvellous caricatures. So venomous, spiteful and mean. Definitely, "two ghastly hags". So malevolently described.
Aunt Sponge was enormously fat and very short. She had small piggy eyes, a sunken mouth, and one of those white flabby faces that looked exactly as though it had been boiled. She was like a great white soggy over boiled cabbage. Aunt Spiker, on the other hand, was lean and tall and bony, she wore steel-rimmed spectacles that fixed on to the end of her nose with a clip. She had a screeching voice and long wet narrow lips, and whenever she got angry or excited, little flecks of spit would come shooting out of her mouth as she talked.
Who could do anything but cheer as "Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker lay ironed out upon the grass as flat and thin and lifeless as a couple of paper dolls cut out of a picture book? And indeed that is exactly what Master Wicker did as we listened to it in the car. Revisting Dahl is always fun, and I still have lots more of Dahl to discover.