William Kilburn's 1777 watercolour shows the dandelion in all its elegance.
I got a note this morning from a friend, telling me that N has been regaling her daughter AW with stories of Harry Potter. And now AW and her family are reading Harry Potter before the lights go out and again at the breakfast table. And it occurred to me that good books are like dandelion seeds that just keep on floating and finding new homes. Not that good books are common, but that they are enduring. N has been asking about the meaning of the word “classic” lately, and dandelion seeds might make a good analogy. (In my mind, dandelions are a classic flower.)
Since I last posted about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we have carried on with our Roald Dahl mission. We’ve made our way through James and the Giant Peach, then The Twits, and are now halfway through Matilda. I remain a loyal Dahl fan, though The Twits disappointed. It’s about Mr. Twit, a hairy, cruel, crass ex-monkey trainer with bits of tinned sardine and Stilton cheese in his beard, and his wife Mrs. Twit, who’s grown ugly over the years because of her ugly thoughts. “If a person has ugly thoughts,” Dahl writes, “it begins to show on the face. … A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” (That part I liked.)
Together, Mr. and Mrs. Twit are “the smelliest, nastiest, ugliest people in the world.” Mrs. Twit walks with a cane, not because she needs supporting but because she likes to hit children and animals with it. Mr. Twit drinks beer at breakfast. They are united by their ugliness — Mr. Twit catches the birds that land on a nearby tree by smearing the branches with glue, and Mrs. Twit cooks the birds into a pie — but they are also ugly to each other. They’re constantly getting each other back for some nasty trick with a trick that is nastier still. Mrs. Twit feeds her husband worms disguised as spaghetti, and so Mr. Twit gradually lengthens Mrs. Twit’s cane to convince her she’s got “the shrinks.”
It is a funny story, though for me (admittedly not for N) it quickly wore thin. I kept asking myself, why isn’t this working? The answer lay more than halfway through the book, when we meet a family of monkeys the Twits keep in a cage outside. The monkeys hate the Twits and long to return to the African jungle, and to escape the people who’ve made their lives so miserable. These monkeys are our Charlie, our James of the Giant Peach, our Harry. They’re the ones we need to attach ourselves to in order to care about the story, and they are absent from the early pages. There isn’t enough time left in the story to really fall for them, though of course we want them to escape, and we are happy when the Roly-Poly Bird and the would-be pie birds help them pull the ultimate prank on the Twits.
Dahl himself wrote that he simply wanted to “do something against beards,” so I suppose I’m taking The Twits far too seriously. But what is so brilliant about Charlie and James and Matilda and the BFG is how quickly and unequivocally we bond with the main characters. Impoverished Charlie trying to share his yearly chocolate bar with his family; James held hostage in the cruel world of Aunts Sponge and Spiker; tiny Matilda forced to put her stupid book away and watch telly with her horribly uncouth family (“Don’t you ever stop reading?”); little Sophie quaking in the dark orphanage, only to be scooped up by a dream-catching giant.
The Twits has none of that. It didn’t diminish N’s enjoyment of the story, but she did ask several times, “Mom, who is more main? Mr. or Mrs.?” Which leads me to believe she was unsure of who was taking us through. I suspect the monkeys were meant to take us through, but arrived too late for the job.
Now Matilda, in more ways than one, is another story. I have a soft spot for Quentin Blake’s depictions of her, since they remind me of my own little N. The similarities stop there: N is smart, funny, and delightful, and Matilda is a genius. By five, she’s read Dickens and Steinbeck, despite the fact that her parents are monstrous and see her as “nothing more than a scab. … Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood looked forward enormously to the time when they could pick their little daughter off and flick her away.”
I wonder if it’s Matilda’s brilliance that has N asking about classics and reciting her multiplication tables to me. On her top bookshelf, she has a row of books written by me. Last night she pulled down Water Wings, my first novel, and began to read, grinning all the while. It’s not a book for children, and I’m sure she’ll lose interest soon.
“Did it feel weird,” she asked, “the first time you saw your name on a book?”
“Yes,” I said. “But it feels weirder to see you reading it.”
She picked out lines she liked and read them to me. And they were nice ones, if I do say so myself, which is a compliment to both of us. As I pulled her door closed, she called out, “I like your book, Mom. It’s really good.” And though she only got a page in, it was strangely touching. Touching that she thought it was good, yes, but also that she had every confidence that her opinion mattered.