Tag Archives: Roald Dahl

Dahl interrupted

Some of you will remember our Roald Dahl mission, in which we set out to read all of his kids’ stories in a more-or-less row, including the autobiographies. We loved Boy, which revealed the dramatic highs and lows of Dahl’s childhood — how his nose was mostly sliced off in a motor-car accident with his “ancient half sister” at the wheel; how he placed a dead mouse in the gobstopper jar at a mean, grubby woman’s sweet shop, and was caned by his headmaster as punishment; and how he read the entire works of Charles Dickens on his stints warming the toilet seat for a nasty prefect at school.

We moved on to Going Solo with great enthusiasm. The book covers Dahl’s years in East Africa working for Shell Oil, and his experience as a fighter pilot in World War 2. N was shocked and delighted from the very beginning, and especially enjoyed Dahl’s ship voyage to Dar es Salaam, when he regularly encountered the portly and elderly Major Griffiths and his wife out for a stark-naked, stimulating prance around the decks each morning.

“Here was I, a bundle of youthful self-consciousness, gaping at him through the port-hole and disapproving quite strongly of what he was doing. But I was also envying him. I was actually jealous of his total don’t-give-a-damn attitude, and I wished like mad that I myself had the guts to go out there and do the same thing.”

So it started out well. But then war broke out. Dahl — though “just a chap who works for Shell” — was given a platoon, along with the task of rounding up every German attempting to escape Dar es Salaam, and delivering them to the prison camp. He’s told he should “mow them down” if they put up resistance.

(“What does he mean, ‘mow’?” asked N.)

Soon enough, Dahl and his men are confronting a convoy of German families headed for neutral territory along the coast road. There’s an exchange between Dahl and a man at the head of the convoy, who eventually puts a gun to Dahl’s chest and threatens to shoot him if the group is not allowed to escape.

“What came next happened very suddenly. There was the crack of a single rifle shot fired from the wood and the bald man who was holding me took the bullet right through his face. It was a horrible sight. The Luger dropped on to the road and bald man fell dead beside it.”

The chapter ends with Dahl escorting the rest of the group to its prison camp.

“So they won the war?” N asked as I closed the book, though of course the war had barely begun.

My opa, who I like to call the lettuce king soldier, and whose story is told in The Occupied Garden

I tried to explain why the Germans had been rounded up, and why the war was happening, and who was on which side, and who was on no side, and so on, but I realized she had very little context for this story, and the necessary violence it contained. She knows a bit about WW2, because she has a one-legged opa and a copy of The Occupied Garden on her bookshelf, and she has asked questions about that war for many years. When she was little she used to often ask, “Will war come to Toronto?” just the way she would ask if hurricanes would come, or earthquakes, or murderers. And even though years have passed since that stage, I think she has only a very vague concept of war, and that she needs more information for this book to be meaningful rather than just shocking.

In a later chapter, which N’s dad J read to her, a man was beheaded with a sword, and together J and I decided to shelve the book for now. We explained how we felt about it and why, and offered up another book, but were unprepared for her passionate response. We were treating her “like a baby,” and she was so old enough for Going Solo, and what about our Dahl mission, she asked, to read all of his books in a more-or-less row?

It was a strange experience, and I’m still not sure we handled it right. It felt odd to be playing the role of censor, and I asked myself many times if this wasn’t a learning opportunity shut down, but I kept coming back to the same decision. I think it’s great when the books we read together pose big questions about the world, because it gives us a chance to stop reading and talk about ideas the book contains. But you don’t want to do be pulled up so often out of a story that you leave the story behind. And there are so many wonderful books to be read and absorbed at this stage, why rush on to the next one before she is ready?

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Goodbye, Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak died today. The news, as I type this, is so fresh that Wikipedia still has a mix of “is” and “was” in its article about him. I bought Where the Wild Things Are for N on one of my first trips away from her, when I was in Winnipeg, on the jury for an arts council grant. It became a favourite in our house for many years, with its toothy, hairy monsters and its forest-room, and Max in his wolf suit, making mischief of one kind and another. When his mischief lands him in his room, supperless, his imagination takes flight.

Sendak’s muted illustrations are gorgeous here, and the story’s rhythm makes it feel like a poem, lovely to read aloud. The long sentences are carefully placed, so that you’re forced to pause at just the right moment, in order to turn the page. The monsters are scary and wild, but the words flow gently.

That very night in Max’s room a forest grew

and grew —

and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around

and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through night and day

and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.

In the Night Kitchen, published in 1970, continues to be controversial because little Mickey appears without his pyjamas. Ludicrous. Is this offensive to you?

The book was controversial when it was first released in 1963. But it was a lasting hit with children. According to Sendak, an eight-year-old boy once wrote to him to ask, “How much does it cost to get to where the wild things are? If it is not expensive, my sister and I would like to spend the summer there.” What treasures such letters must have been for a man many describe as melancholy.

In an interview last year with The Guardian, Sendak spoke plainly about his sadness. When Eugene Glynn, his partner of 50 years, died in 2007, he “caved in …  life is pretty dreadful most of the time. Even in the country that’s so pretty with the flowers and leaves and sunshine. And I was abandoned when he died! I’m alone. I feel like an old bubba. And I’m not kind all of the time, I’m not nice all the time.”

But what a body of work he has left behind. The New York Times obit says he trusted “the essential rightness of children’s perceptions of the world around them,” and perhaps this was what gave his work its lasting quality. Like Roald Dahl, he didn’t talk down to children, and he didn’t make their world seem easy. And yet Sendak apparently loathed Dahl: “The cruelty in his books is off-putting. Scary guy. I know he’s very popular but what’s nice about this guy? He’s dead, that’s what’s nice about him.” Nevertheless, Sendak felt strongly that children’s books today are “too safe … I’m not always sure if they’re truthful or faithful to what’s going on with children.”

I wonder if he felt proud, by the end, of the work he’d accomplished? It seems to me I often read of children’s authors and illustrators who feel their work is less respected because it’s made for children. “I have to accept my role,” Sendak told The Guardian. “I will never kill myself like Vincent van Gogh. Nor will I paint beautiful water lilies like Monet. I can’t do that. I’m in the idiot role of being a kiddie book person.”

And yet when I read about Sendak (or PL Travers or AA Milne, who had similar complaints), I see reams of respect. So is it just a case of being human, and feeling small in the grand scheme of things? Do we respect children’s writers enough? After all, they give us our first taste of books, and we remember our favourite ones forever — if not the stories themselves, then the feeling the stories gave us when we first discovered them.

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

A love story, a hate story, and a grieving Roald Dahl

"He had loved her from his balcony for many years, but he was a very shy man and he had never been able to bring himself to give her even the smallest hint of his love."

I’ve been loving this little project of ours, reading through all the books we can find by Roald Dahl. When I bought Esio Trot from Book City, the woman smiled at me as she rang up the sale and said, “Oh, this is a great little love story.”

And it is.

Dumpy, balding, middle-aged Mr. Hoppy lives for two things: the potted plants on his balcony, and the splendid Mrs. Silver — “sweet and gentle and full of kindness” — who lives one floor below, fussing over her tiny pet tortoise Alfie. But Mr. Hoppy is too shy to profess his love for Mrs. Silver, and makes do with years of small talk and fleeting glimpses until one bright day in May, when Mrs. Silver confesses she’s worried Alfie isn’t growing fast enough. “Try to think how miserable it must make him feel to be so titchy! Everyone wants to grow up … I’d give anything to see it happen.”

Mr. Hoppy sees his chance, and gets scheming. He teaches Mrs. Silver a chant in “tortoise language,” a series of backwards words to be muttered to Alfie morning, noon and night. “Worg pu, ffup pu, toohs pu! … In a few months’ time, he’ll be twice as big as he is now.”

Then he visits every pet shop in the city, and buys up their supply of tortoises. Each week, he steals a “titchy” tortoise and replaces it with one just two ounces bigger. And just as a parent doesn’t notice her child growing steadily day by day until suddenly the clothes don’t fit, so Mrs. Silver doesn’t notice Alfie’s girth until he is too big to get through the door of his tortoise house. Of course, Mr. Hoppy has a chant to fix that too: teg a tib rellams, a tib rellams.

How could Mrs. Silver fail to fall for such a clever man? (She doesn’t realize just how clever he is — deceptively so, and cleverly deceptive — but that’s another matter.)

Carl van Vechten portrait of Neal and Dahl. Patricia Neal said in People Magazine, March 1997: "Over the years, I found that talking about Olivia helped immeasurably. Roald – who died in 1990 – couldn't say a word.... It was locked inside him."

In a way, Esio Trot is the flip side of The Twits, which was a kind of hate story rather than a love story, and saw Mr. Twit shaving away bits of Mrs. Twit’s cane so that eventually she came to believe she had “the shrinks.” It makes me wonder what kind of a practical joker (or worse?) Dahl himself was in his day. Certainly his love life got complicated. He was married for 30 years to the actress Patricia Neal, and they came through many tragedies as a family: in 1960, their son Theo’s carriage was struck by a cab, and the baby suffered a brain injury; two years later, with Theo still vulnerable, their 7-year-old daughter Olivia died of measles encephalitis; in 1965, a pregnant Patricia Neal suffered three burst cerebral aneurysms, and sank into a coma for weeks. She delivered the child safely, and Dahl became very involved in her rehabilitation, but their marriage, apparently always turbulent, was never the same.

These horrific events took place within a mere five years, while Dahl’s career as a children’s writer was just getting going. I wonder how he coped, and how writing played a role. A couple of years ago, when a family member was diagnosed with cancer, I put my pen down the day I got the news. I got up from my desk and left everything just where it was for weeks. I couldn’t return to it right away, not even to close things up or to tidy. It was as if everything was suspended. But there came a time I needed to return, and though it wasn’t me who was sick, writing was my medicine.

The Guardian calls Dahl "a tricky customer for a biographer.... Crashing through life like a big, bad child he managed to alienate pretty much everyone he ever met with his grandiosity, dishonesty and spite. Tempered by the desire to be very wealthy, he was able to finesse this native nastiness into a series of compelling books for children who loved to see their anarchic inner world caught on paper. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr Fox and Matilda all do the work of contemporary folktales, allowing young readers to stray into some very dark places and still get home in time for tea."

Dahl was writing James and the Giant Peach when Theo was injured in 1960; and he was revising Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when Olivia contracted measles. Donald Sturrock’s biography of Dahl recounts this period in detail. It’s almost unbearable to read about the father wrapping his daughter in an eiderdown and carrying her to the ambulance. Harder still is a passage written by Dahl himself, meticulously documenting Olivia’s decline. “I sat in hall. Smoked. Felt frozen. A small single bar electric fire on wall. An old man in next room. Woman doctor went to phone. She was trying urgently to locate another doctor. He arrived. I went in. Olivia lying quietly. Still unconscious. She has an even chance, doctor said.” And later: “Got to hospital. Walked in. Two doctors advanced on me from waiting room. How is she? I’m afraid it’s too late. I went into her room. Sheet was over her. Doctor said to nurse go out. Leave him alone. I kissed her. She was warm. I went out. ‘She is warm.’ I said to doctors in hall, ‘Why is she so warm?’ ‘Of course,’ he said. I left.”

According to Sturrock, the account was written in a notebook labeled OLIVIA and tucked in a drawer. It was found 28 years later, when Dahl himself had died. One can only speculate as to why he wrote it, and why in that clinical style. I suspect that no words seem powerful enough to express such profound grief, so rather than document the impossible emotions, he documented the facts that stood out to him — both to get them out of himself, and to preserve the last moments of his daughter’s life.

We’re in a bit of a lull right now, as we need to go Dahl-shopping, but this is how our list looks so far:

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

I’m adding three more — Dahl’s autobiographies Boy: Tales of  Childhood, Going Solo and My Year— because I’m sure it will be interesting for both of us to read about the author’s life having read so much of his fiction. Autobiographies written for children don’t seem terribly common to me, so I’m curious to see what N will make of these. I like that she thinks about authors as well as the books themselves, and it sounds like plenty of kids do so when it comes to Roald Dahl. According to his widow Felicity (he and Patricia Neal divorced in the 1980s), children still turn up looking for Dahl at the home they shared.

“It’s just awful because they look over the gate and say, ‘Roald Dahl lives here doesn’t he?’ … And I say ‘Well he did.’ [They say], ‘Oh, has he moved?’ And I have to say, ‘No he died.’ And it shatters them.”

8 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Dahl’s not-so-great glass elevator: articulating disappointment

I usually post on Mondays, but here it is Friday and I am just getting around to it now. I don’t know how the week slipped by me this way, but I have an inkling my sluggishness has something to do with my disenchantment around our current read, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. We’re not quite finished yet, but from the beginning I have disliked this book. So much so that I urge N’s dad J to be the reader, offering it up  like a treat. “Would you like to … ?” He isn’t fooled by my generosity. He finds the story tedious too. And while N thinks the book “seems pretty good,” she is intrigued by our reaction to it.

“You don’t like it, do you?” she asks, grinning.

“No.” How refreshing to be so certain.

“But why?”

To be honest, it’s hard to say, because it’s hard to pay attention to the story. I find my mind wandering as I read (or as J does), and I end up thinking things like, Isn’t it amazing that we can read without comprehending, the way we can hear without really listening, or look without seeing? 

But I do try to articulate my reasons to N, because I think it’s important to say more than “It isn’t my cup of tea.” I want her to be able to say why something doesn’t work for her, and perhaps even what would make it better. (Just as I love it when she can tell me why she likes her new friend “Snowy” at school: “We both believe in magic. We both like adventure. We’re both anxious to do things — like something’s buzzing inside us.”)

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator picks up where Charlie and the Chocolate Factory left off, with Charlie, Grandpa Joe and chocolatier extraordinaire Willy Wonka arriving at the Bucket house in the Great Glass Elevator to give good news to Charlie’s family: he has inherited the chocolate factory from Willy Wonka, and they are all going to live there happily ever after and never be poor again. But from there the story spirals off in increasingly bizarre directions. The elevator whisks them into the sky as they begin to make their trip back to the factory, but Grandma Josephine panics, grabs the controls, and suddenly they are orbiting the earth at seventeen thousand miles an hour. The brand new Space Hotel USA is out there too, as is a shuttle containing hotel staff and astronauts communicating with the American president, Lancelot R. Gilligrass, and soon enough the government becomes convinced the elevator contains terrorists bent on blowing up the Space Hotel. The story turns strangely convoluted and political, and ridiculous too, with calls to “Premier Yugetoff” in Russia and “Premier How-Yu-Bin” in China. The president asks knock-knock jokes of the people on the other end of the line: “Knock-knock.” “Who-der?” “Ginger.” “Ginger who?” “Ginger yourself when you fell off the Great Wall of China?” It is truly, groaningly horrible.

I can’t help but feel that Dahl was telling a story for children with a lot of nudge-nudge wink-winks for grown-ups, too, a tactic I really dislike — when the President rhymes off the names of famous hotel owners Mr. Hilton, Mr. Ritz, Mr. Astoria and Mr. Waldorf, it means nothing to N. Nor does the knock-knock joke about “Warren Peace.” Sure, you can explain these things (and pausing to explain can be a lovely part of reading with children), but in this case the iota of humour would be lost by then anyway.

This doesn’t feel like a story written with care. It feels tossed off, and largely Charlie-less. It is picking up slightly, now that Wonka et al have arrived back at the factory, and the story is more solidly focused on its characters, but even here I sensed a wrong note. Willy Wonka convinces Charlie’s curmudgeonly, creakingly old grandparents that they should take Wonka-vite, a pill with the power to make them twenty years younger. With a bit of simple math, he’s warned them of the dire consequences of taking too many. Seduced by the desire to be young again, they grab for the pills and begin to fight over them, eventually swallowing four each and turning rapidly into babies. This tiny moment could have been vintage Dahl, but it’s spoiled by a curious switch in perspective. Suddenly we are in Wonka’s thoughts, of all places, though the power and magic of Wonka’s character lies in the fact that he is enigmatic, mysterious, impossible to understand. But here he is, musing for pages on end: “He hated squabbles. He hated it when people got grabby and selfish…. It was an unhappy truth, he told himself, that nearly all people in the world behave badly when there is something really big at stake.”

I keep thinking back to my earlier research about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and how I read that Dahl hated the Gene Wilder movie version so much he refused a film version of The Great Glass Elevator. “Maybe,” I suggested to J this morning, “he’d finally realized how bad the book was, and was doing damage control!”

But all this negativity is bringing me down. Scouring the internet for other opinions of Dahl’s not-so-great glass elevator, I found this simple, perfect quote by moonflygirl, who’s scanned a load of gorgeous old book covers on flickr. “As much as I love Roald Dahl, I think this book taught me that sequels can be disappointing.” Having gone on at length articulating my disappointment, this one spare sentence feels much more dignified. But I’m curious — how do others critique books with their children?

18 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Eye-smiles & deep dark secrets

For a couple of weeks now I’ve been squinting at my dad’s old stamp collection, working away on a strange book project that may go nowhere but is fascinating just the same. These are stamps he collected as a boy in Holland, and I can picture him matching up the images and placing them just so in the postzegelalbum that is now faded and worn soft. One of my favourites is an old 1920s lyre bird stamp from Australia. I don’t know how he got it. Most of the stamps are from the Netherlands, Germany, and France, but there are others from far-flung places like Japan and India, and it’s funny to think that nowadays he sails to such places on the boat that is his home. Those dreams of world travel began long ago, and eventually became reality.

So I was squinting at those stamps when an email came in from Niranjana Iyer, sending news of Royal Mail’s new series of stamps celebrating Roald Dahl’s work. The series features Quentin Blake’s wonderful illustrations: Charlie with his golden ticket, the BFG with Sophie on his palm, a Witch with her wig suspended above her scabby scalp. And I thought, how nice that this would come to me just now, like a special delivery.

We’re nearly done Roald Dahl’s 1975 novel Danny the Champion of the World, but we got off to a difficult start. Danny is four months old when his mother dies, so he’s raised by his father, who owns a filling station, and they live together in a gypsy caravan. Danny adores his father, a marvelous story-teller and an “eye-smiler” (like my own dad). “I’ve learned that a real mouth-smile always has an eye-smile to go with it,” Danny tells us. “So watch out, I say, when someone smiles at you with his mouth but his eyes stay the same. It’s sure to be phony.”

Danny’s father takes wonderful care of them both and teaches Danny to become an expert mechanic by the age of 7. But late one night, Danny wakes to discover his father is gone, and that “no father is perfect. Grown-ups are complicated creatures, full of quirks and secrets. Some have quirkier quirks and deeper secrets than others, but all of them, including one’s own parents, have two or three private habits hidden up their sleeves that would probably make you gasp if you knew about them.”

"Pheasants are beautiful birds, aren't they Mom?"

When Danny wakes up alone in the dark, he grows sick with worry. He waits and waits until finally his father returns. “I’m so sorry,” he says, and by way of apology, he lets Danny in on “the deepest, darkest secret of my whole life.” It turns out that Danny’s lovely, gentle, funny, kind father is a poacher. He hasn’t poached since his wife died, but that night, he was driven by an insatiable longing. At first, Danny is horrified by the idea that his father is a thief. And then he finds out that he comes from a long line of “magnificent and splendiferous” poachers. Every decent man in town loves to creep into the wealthy, villainous Mr. Hazell’s woods and steal his overfed pheasants. “Only the very rich can afford to rear pheasants just for the fun of shooting them down when they grow up,” Danny’s father tells him. Before the conversation is done, Danny himself has caught the poaching fever and hangs on his father’s every word about the most ingenious ways to catch pheasants, whose greatest weakness is that they are crazy about raisins:

The 1975 Jonathan Cape release of Danny was illustrated by Jill Bennett

The Horsehair Stopper is a “brilliant method” because it’s completely silent. You stab a plumped-up raisin with a single stiff horsehair so it sticks out on either end. The horsehair makes the raisin stick in the pheasant’s throat, and the feeling of it tickling there, like a crumb, renders the pheasant unable to move. “He becomes absolutely rooted to the spot, and there he stands pumping his silly neck up and down just like a piston, and all you’ve got to do is nip out quickly from the place where you’re hiding and pick him up.” The image of the bird’s neck vibrating gave me the shivers, and I glanced at N, but couldn’t gauge her response, so I continued reading.

Method number two, The Sticky Hat, involves a trail of plump raisins leading to a tiny cone of paper smeared with glue. The last delectable raisins sit inside the cone. “Now, the old pheasant comes pecking along the trail, and when he gets to the hole he pops his head inside to gobble up the raisins and the next thing he knows he’s got a paper hat stuck over his eyes, and he can’t see a thing…. No bird in the world is going to run away once you cover up his eyes.”

At which point N said, very quietly, “Pheasants are beautiful birds, aren’t they Mom?” And then she added, “At least they aren’t killing them with guns. That would be really mean.” But if you’re a good shot, it would also be quick and unexpected. In those early pages, both N and I couldn’t help hoping the girl from The Magic Finger would appear and “see red,” just as she did in that book, when she turned the hunting Gregg family into ducks and the ducks they hunted into hunters.

"'The Magic Finger' is something I have been able to do all my life. I can't tell you just how I do it, because I don't even know myself. But it always happens when I get cross, when I see red..."

“Please don’t shoot!” cried Mr. Gregg.

“Why not?” said one of the ducks. “You are always shooting at us.”

“Oh, but that’s not the same! We are allowed to shoot ducks!”

“Who allows you?” asked the duck.

“We allow each other,” said Mr. Gregg.

“Very nice,” said the duck. “And now we are going to allow each other to shoot you.”

Alas, we are very near the end of Danny and the girl with the magic finger hasn’t arrived. But what has undeniably come, in spite of the cruel tricks and  dead pheasants, is an incredibly touching story about a father and son. This novel isn’t as funny as most of Dahl’s other books — it sometimes has quite a melancholy tone — but it’s rich and moving and complex. The love and admiration Danny feels for his father is there on every page: “I loved the way he moved. He had that long, loping stride all countrymen have who are used to covering great distances on foot. He was wearing an old navy-blue sweater and an even older cap on his head. He turned and waved to me. I waved back. Then he disappeared around a bend in the road.” The chapter closes, and we know, we just know, something bad is about to happen to Danny’s beloved father.

This 1959 edition of The New Yorker carried the seed of Dahl's 1975 novel, Danny the Champion of the World

The more I read of Dahl’s books, the more intrigued I become about the man himself. I’ve mentioned his short stories before, written for adults, and his main focus before switching to children’s literature when his own kids were young. So it was fun to discover that Danny was originally one of these short stories, albeit Danny-less, and first published in The New Yorker in 1959 under the title “The Champion of the World.” How interesting to think that the father-son relationship was not part of the original story, yet forms the very core of the later novel. As a writer, I love it when one project grows into another, or when a story emerges fully formed, but a little bit of it stays inside me, one day becoming a whole new creation. I remember being floored when an agent once tried to dissuade me from writing a story that had come from an earlier story. To me it was fascinating to see how different the story could become by changing the focus. She said, rather bluntly, “People will think you have no imagination.” And I remember quietly deciding that anyone who’d think that mustn’t have much themselves.

I’m sure Dahl must have felt the same way. Bits of his stories pop up in new form again and again. N and I were thrilled to find our favourite Dahl character, the “nice and jumbly” Big Friendly Giant, peering out at us from the pages of Danny, catching dreams and blowing them into children’s bedroom windows. I can just see Dahl, scribbling away on his Danny manuscript, and tucking this magnificent giant into a corner of his mind reserved for stories yet to come.

By the way, since our last post, we’ve also read The Minpins and George’s Marvellous Medicine, so our list is now 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

And now … back to my stamps.

10 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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!

21 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

“Good thoughts will shine out of your face like sunbeams”

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.

 

10 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized