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Discus & Teacups

Henrietta shares her tea

We took Matilda with us to Ottawa last weekend for a little winter getaway, and it was a good thing she was there, since in the middle of the night, the hotel’s alarm went off, ten horrible long hoots followed by a repeatedly repeated emergency announcement that had N wild with anxiety. The “emergency” was quickly resolved, but getting back to sleep was another matter. So out came Matilda. A page or two of this brilliant little girl outsmarting the gruff and grotesque headmistress Trunchbull was the perfect tranquilizer.

Unlike Mr. and Mrs. Twit, you have to love Miss Trunchbull, even while you detest her. Once a formidable athlete, she has a bull-neck, sausagey fingers, and “massive thighs encased in a pair of extraordinary breeches.” She picks children up by their ears and their pig tails and hurls them at will — out classroom windows, over playground fences — and she gets away with it because she knows enough to “make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it’s unbelievable.” The parents don’t buy the children’s tales about her, or if they do, and complain about how their kids are treated, the Trunchbull does the same to them. Imagine moms and dads sailing through the air like a discus.

But it’s the Trunchbull’s cruelty that brings out Matilda’s hidden powers — her “first miracle”. She’s so enraged at being falsely accused of slipping a salamander into the Trunchbull’s water glass, that she causes the glass to tip over simply by staring at it. “Little waves of lightning seemed to be flashing out of her eyes. Her eyeballs  were beginning to get hot, as though vast energy was building up somewhere inside them. It was an amazing sensation. She kept her eyes steadily on the glass, and now the power was concentrating itself in one small part of each eye and growing stronger and stronger and it felt as though millions of tiny little invisible arms with hands on them were shooting out of her eyes towards the glass she was staring at. ‘Tip it,’ Matilda whispered. ‘Tip it over!’ ” And so she makes the discovery of her own incredible power. (Oh, how I remember doing this myself! Never actually moving anything, but absolutely convinced that I could. Going dizzy and bug-eyed trying.)

Re power, it seemed fitting, then, that the next day we tromped through the slush to visit the Famous Five and their teacups on Parliament Hill. As we posed with Nellie McClung holding the news that “Women are Persons!” I half-expected N to say, “Well, duh, what else would we be?” because the idea of such an argument was so preposterous to her. So I explained (albeit briefly and simply) about the Persons Case, and how women have had to fight for equal treatment. I could feel N thinking hard about that. Together we stood looking at Henrietta Muir Edwards, holding her tea cup aloft. She had a perfect disc of snowy ice on her head, like an extra little cap or a discus, and when I pointed that out, chuckling, N said very seriously, “I think we should take that off Mom.” So I reached forward and returned Henrietta to her dignified state.

I love N’s sensitivity, and her curiosity too. The way she sees, the questions she asks. We used to call her “our little noticer,” and though the slightly clumsy nickname has fallen away, the noticing has not.

Later that Ottawa day we were in the Byward Market, gobbling Beaver Tails, and a down-and-out man approached us and spoke to N’s dad J, hoping for change. When J returned the greeting, the man said, “Thank you for not making me feel invisible.” And N asked about that too.

“What does he mean, invisible?”

“Well, he feels like no one sees him. Like he’s not even here, because no one notices him.”

“So it’s like he’s a ghost, then,” she decided. “He feels like he’s already died but he hasn’t.”

Like James before entering the magical Giant Peach; like starving Charlie Bucket before finding the Golden Ticket. “Several people went hurrying past him on the sidewalk, their chins sunk deep in the collars of their coats, their feet crunching in the snow … none of them was taking the slightest notice of the small boy crouching in the gutter.”

We bought two more Dahls in Ottawa — The Magic Finger, devoured on the car ride home, and Fantastic Mr. Fox, now nearly done. Thus far, our list looks like this:

The Gremlins
James and the Giant Peach
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The Magic Finger
Fantastic Mr Fox
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
Danny, the Champion of the World
The Enormous Crocodile
The Twits
George’s Marvellous Medicine
The BFG
The Witches
The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me
Matilda
Esio Trot
The Vicar of Nibbleswicke
The Minpins
Revolting Rhymes
Dirty Beasts
Rhyme Stew

On we go!

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Fantastic Mr. Reid on Fantastic Mr. Fox: guest post by author Iain Reid

I’m over at Pickle Me This today, chatting with Kerry Clare about And Me Among Them, but I have another wonderful guest for you, as part of an ongoing series about when writers read kids’ books. Please welcome Iain and send us your comments about Roald Dahl!

“They [children] accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly.” E.B. White

I was never concerned with logic or reason. I didn’t speculate if a plot, or setting, was realistic before choosing a book. That was irrelevant. I was interested in the originality of a story and if its characters were memorable. Good books would stay with me. The ones I enjoyed most were the ones I revisited often. Even though the ending was no longer a surprise, and I knew the dialogue by heart, my level of pleasure only increased with each reading.

On the cover of my Bantam Books 1978 edition of Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl, Mr. Fox is shown standing upright, dressed in green trousers, and a red blazer. He’s holding a wooden walking stick. Both in the picture and the story, Mr. Fox was more man than fox. It’s absurd and impossible. But as White predicted, I willingly accepted it. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a story of risk taking, adventure and survival. It’s the story of the cunning fox, his family and animal friends versus the evil farmers who attempt to dig them out of their underground burrow. It was my favourite. I read it over and over. In my family we all did. Even my parents.

What made Fantastic Mr. Fox even more enthralling was our proximity to the natural world. I lived on a farm. We had chickens, and ducks. We had an apple orchard and lush vegetable gardens. It was just like the story. I could walk outside post-reading and re-enact everything. Typically I played alone and cast myself as Mr. Fox. Occasionally, we would even be visited by a skinny fox. His scruffy fur was a burnt orange except for his legs and paws which were a charcoal black. He looked like he was wearing dress socks but had forgotten his shoes.

I don’t think my parents have seen many foxes around lately. Most of the neighboring fields, once home to cattle, crops and wild flowers, have been sold to developers. Construction had been delayed for over a year. Last week mom sent an email saying work had started. Large diggers arrived. She attached a few photos with the caption, “Thinking of Mr. Fox again…today we feel like the fox family being dug out.”

_________

Iain Reid’s work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Reader’s Digest, on CBC Radio and NPR. He is also a frequent contributor to The National Post. One Bird’s Choice is his first book. Iain studied history and philosophy at Queen’s University and now lives in Kingston.

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