Tag Archives: The BFG

“I’ve been to London to visit the queen”

I’ve been absent from this favourite space of mine for too long, and I’m reminded of the humble tone in the letters I used to write to my grandparents too many weeks after Christmas had passed. “I’m sorry I haven’t written sooner, but thank you for new nightgown, I do like blue.”

Truth be told, I’ve been busy. I’ve just returned from a research trip to London, England, and I am now sorting through the maze of information found there, and hopefully figuring out how to make it into a story.

I went on the trip with my sister and co-author, Tracy Kasaboski (our first collaboration was The Occupied Garden), and my mom and our sister Heidi came along as research assistants.

It was the first time we’d really traveled together just the four of us since our childhoods, and we had an amazing time. The city is a dizzying mix of old and new — you can still find the cramped courts and alleys that will feature in our story, set in late Victorian and Edwardian times, but everywhere you turn there’s something that gives the city a playground quality: the Eye, the Shard, the Millennium Dome. Along with the beautiful bridges that stretch over the Thames, there are cable cars soaring back and forth. At night, the skyline has a neon sparkle.

The last time I was in London was when I was pregnant with N. I didn’t yet know how many of our most treasured books would take us there, but I’ve been thinking about it today, and have compiled a sampling:

Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?

I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.

Pussy cat, pussy cat, what did you there?

I frightened a mouse under a chair.

N loved this book of old nursery rhymes, with its patchwork imagery and picture-words.

“At last they came to St Paul’s Cathedral, which was built a long time ago by a man with a bird’s name. Wren it was, but he was no relation to Jenny. That is why so many birds live near Sir Christopher Wren’s Cathedral, which also belongs to St Paul, and that is why the Bird Woman lives there too…. All round her flew the birds, circling and leaping and swooping and rising…. They flew round and round the head of the Bird Woman as the children approached, and then, as though to tease her, they suddenly rushed away through the air and sat on the top of St Paul’s, laughing and turning their heads away and pretending they didn’t know her.”

A 2009 original Quentin Blake knock off by N

“Sophie and the BFG came at last to a large place full of trees. There was a road running through it, and a lake. There were no people in this place and the BFG stopped for the first time since they had set out from his cave many hours before.

‘What’s the matter?’ Sophie whispered in her under-the-breath voice.

‘I is in a bit of a puddle,’ he said.

‘You’re doing marvellously,’ Sophie whispered.

‘No I isn’t,’ he said. ‘I is now completely boggled. I is lost.’

‘But why?’

‘Because we is meant to be in the middle of London and suddenly we is in green pastures.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ Sophie whispered. ‘This is the middle of London. It’s called Hyde Park. I know exactly where we are.'”

“‘Wendy, I ran away the day I was born….

It was because I heard father and mother,’ he explained in a low voice, ‘talking about what I was to be when I became a man.’

He was extraordinarily agitated now.

‘I don’t ever want to be a man,’ he said with passion. ‘I want always to be a little boy and to have fun. So I ran away to Kensington Gardens and lived a long time among the fairies.'”

“Ron pressed a tiny silver button on the dashboard. The car around them vanished — and so did they. Harry could feel the seat vibrating beneath him, hear the engine, feel his hands on his knees and his glasses on his nose, but for all he could see, he had become a pair of eyeballs, floating a few feet above the ground in a dingy street full of parked cars.

‘Let’s go,’ said Ron’s voice from his right.

The ground and the dirty buildings on either side fell away, dropping out of sight as the car rose; in seconds, the whole of London lay, smoky and glittering, below them.”

“This is a story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child. It is a very important story because it shows how all the comings and goings between our own world and Narnia first began. In those days Mr Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in Lewisham Road. In those days, if you were a boy you had to wear a stiff Eton collar every day, and schools were usually nastier than now. But meals were nicer; and as for sweets, I won’t tell you how cheap and good they were, because it would only make your mouth water in vain. And in those days there lived in London a girl called Polly Plummer.”

Last but not least, A Christmas Carol comes to mind.

“They scarcely seemed to enter the city; for the city rather seemed to spring up about them, and encompass them of its own act. But there they were, in the heart of it; on ‘Change, amongst the merchants; who hurried up and down, and chinked the money in their pockets, and conversed in groups, and looked at their watches, and trifled thoughtfully with their great gold seals; and so forth, as Scrooge had often seen them.”


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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 Witches
The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me
Esio Trot
The Vicar of Nibbleswicke
The Minpins
Revolting Rhymes
Dirty Beasts
Rhyme Stew

And now … back to my stamps.


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“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.



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However small, the chance was there

"Twice a day, on his way to and from school, little Charlie Bucket had to walk right past the gates of the factory. And every time he went by, he would begin to walk very, very slowly, and he would hold his nose high in the air and take long deep sniffs of the gorgeous chocolatey smell all around him. Oh, how he loved that smell!"

After my last post, in which I talked about “practice in disappointment,” I had a note from a friend, whose daughters are young women now. She wrote that she, too, used to want to fix every little thing that went wrong in her girls’ lives. “To act on every emotional vent that they had about life, people, you name it. What they have taught me though, was that when I rushed in too quickly to help them up or to try and fix it for them (and I went to insane lengths to fix things looking back), it made them feel that I didn’t believe they could cope, that I didn’t have the confidence in their ability to get through it…. So I think I have finally learned to listen with a wrenching twist in my gut to their heartaches, encourage them, and rejoice with them when they get through a difficult time.”

I told her I would like to fold up that piece of wisdom and keep it in my pocket always.

And then late last night, after N had gone to bed, I found myself hovering over her piano homework, a picture that she was supposed to colour according to the musical notes placed on different parts of the image. C was orange, D was pink. But the pink she’d chosen looked almost exactly like the orange, and I was actually standing there considering going over it with a pinker pink! Because I knew she’d got it right — the cap was pinker than the lousy marker, but her teacher couldn’t know that. And so on, and so on. Of course, I stopped myself, and even laughed at myself for the impulse. But it’s a sign of this very issue — practice in disappointment — and I’m sure it will keep cropping up in different ways in the years to come.

This past week we’ve been reading Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which brims with disappointment for the first ten chapters. Charlie Bucket lives “in a small wooden house on the edge of a great town.” Stuffed into the place with him are his dad, who works in a toothpaste factory but soon loses his job; his mom; and his two sets of shriveled, skeletal grandparents, George and Georgina and Joe and Josephine, all in their nineties, and so given the only bed in the house. The J’s sleep at one end, and the G’s at the other, while Mr and Mrs Bucket and little Charlie sleep on the floor. They live on boiled potatoes and cabbage, and on Sundays they each get a second helping. “The Buckets, of course, didn’t starve, but every one of them … went about from morning till night with a horrible empty feeling in their tummies.”

The eyebrows, the hair brush, and the raised pinkie: signs of wealth?

Even before we started Charlie, N was mulling rich and poor. She often asks if Selena Gomez, JK Rowling, or her own school principal are rich. Was Judy Garland? Was Charles Dickens? Sometimes at night she announces that, the next day, she’s not going to eat a speck of food, “Just to feel what it feels like to have nothing in my tummy.” But by morning, when the toast or the cereal or the yoghurt-with-a-swirl-of-honey appears before her, she seems to have forgotten, or at least pushed the curiosity aside for another day.

I can tell she’s impressed by Charlie, who refuses a share of his mother’s portion of food when she offers, and who tries to share his birthday chocolate bar (the only one he gets for the whole year) with the other members of his family. The largest and most fantastic chocolate factory in the world stands within sight of Charlie’s rickety little house, but for a long while its owner, genius Willy Wonka, ceased operations because other chocolate makers were stealing his wonderful ideas. Now, he’s offering a tour of his factory to a select few: the five lucky children who happen upon chocolate bars that contain a golden ticket.

Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka terrified me as a child. I was very confused about whether or not I was supposed to like him. I haven't seen Johnny Depp's performance, but it would fun to compare the two movies.

N has known this story for some time. She saw the 1971 movie when she was little (Dahl despised the film, apparently, and refused to give over rights to the book’s sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator), and we’ve been listening to the abridged audio version over Christmas, featuring Dahl himself with his delicious accent. But I often wonder, remembering the way she cursed JK  (“I wish she would just write the story the way I have it in my head!”), how she would have responded to the book without knowing what’s to come.  I suspect it would have infuriated her to see gluttonous Augustus Gloop, spoiled rotten Veruca Salt, gum-smacking Violet Beauregarde, and TV-addicted Mike Teavee winning golden tickets while poor Charlie shrinks to skin and bone without an ounce of self-pity. In the first 45 pages, a few chocolate bars miraculously come his way, and he can’t help but think that “however small the chance might be of striking lucky, the chance was there.” I admire Dahl’s restraint here, making us peel open the bars time and again, only to find nothing but chocolate inside.

But, of course, Charlie does find a golden ticket, and he and Grandpa Joe go off to tour the factory with the four rotten children and their parents. There was a sixth rotten child in Dahl’s early drafts — Miranda Piker, who Dahl described as “a horrid little girl who was disgustingly rude to her parents and also thoroughly disobedient,” but apparently her death in the Spotty Powder room was considered too grim for young readers. Dahl loved to go almost too far. The loathsome giants of The BFG actually eat children; and the witches of The Witches actually do snatch children and cause them to disappear forever. And in The Magic Finger, a girl puts a curse on her cruel teacher, which causes her to grow whiskers and a bushy tail. “If any of you are wondering whether Mrs. Winter is quite all right again now,” Dahl writes, “the answer is No. And she never will be.”

More of Dahl’s children’s books to come in the next while, by the way. We have a new goal in mind: we’re going to try to read all of them.


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Human beans: grizzling and horrigust?

roald-dahl-the-bfgAfter finishing off Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, I urged my daughter toward Black Beauty, thinking it was a nice fit, because recently we acquired a dog who, like the horse in Anna Sewell’s novel, has been mistreated. But more about that another time, because N said no to Black Beauty and insisted (once again) on Roald Dahl’s The BFG — in which the little girl Sophie is kidnapped from her bedroom by a giant who lurks around on dark streets and blows dreams into children’s windows.

In all good conscience I couldn’t very well say “Mommy has already mentioned The BFG on her blog several times, so we’ll have to read something else.” And anyway, it’s probably time for a confession about my own fascination with giants. My new novel, still very much underway, has a giant girl as the  main character.

For this reason, we have books around our house that show pictures of real giants — the “boy giant” Robert Wadlow, who soared past eight feet in height, and weighed nearly four hundred pounds; and the enormous Sandy Allen, seven feet, seven inches, and beautiful when Fellini cast her as his giantess in Casanova. The Wadlow book shows a photo of him touching the top of a streetlight in New York City, with a gaggle of little New Yorkers around him, and for days afterwards, whenever we passed a traffic light, my daughter would say, “A giant could reach that high.”

In my research for the novel, I was intrigued to discover the links between storybook giants and actual giants, whose condition is caused by a pituitary tumour that causes excess growth hormone in the body. So the traits we so often see in stories like Jack and the Beanstalk exist in real life too. Fleshy lips and ears; a pronounced forehead and heavy jaw; poor vision; a deep, hoarse voice; a hunched back; a cane (in stories, a club) for support.

I won’t give more away here, except to say that I’m easily persuaded when N wants another read of The BFG, and tucked away in her second-floor bedroom, we imagine him (one of children’s literature’s most endearing characters, in my opinion) stooping way down to peer through the window at us.

Roald Dahl’s giant lives in Giant Country, but he’s an anomaly there too. His fellow giants are twice as tall as he is, and they all dine on human beans, especially delectable little chiddlers, while the BFG, a conscientious but non-judgmental vegetarian, eats only icky snozzcumbers and drinks frobscottle, a beverage whose fizzes go down instead of up and therefore give him gassy whizzpoppers that are one of his few sources of happiness. Until Sophie comes along, that is.  When the bespectacled little orphan is scooped “hipswitch” out of the orphanage by the giant, both their lives change forever.

One of my favourite passages has Sophie discovering, to her horror, that the giants of giant land eat humans. And while the BFG believes it’s wrong to guzzle human beans, he is quick to point out her hypocrisy. Humans eat pigs, he says, although the pigs probably don’t like it very much. And besides that —

“I is not understanding human beans at all…. You is a human bean and you is saying it is grizzling and horrigust for giants to be eating human beans…. But human beans is squishing each other all the time. They is shootling guns and going up in aerioplanes to drop their bombs on each other’s heads every week. Human beans is always killing other human beans…. Giants is not very lovely, but they is not killing each other. Nor is crockadowndillies killing other crockadowndillies. Nor is pussy-cats killing pussy-cats…. Human beans is the only animals that is killing their own kind.”

Which seems an appropriate thought for Remembrance Day.

Roald Dahl was a member of the Royal Air Force in WW2. He stretched to six feet, six inches, and must have been quite a sight crouched into the cockpit of a warplane. He survived a crash in the desert, but was transferred home to England due to his injuries. Eventually he ended up at a desk in Washington, which must have seemed somewhat unadventurous, and yet it was here that his career really took a turn. He was asked to lunch by C.S. Forester, who requested some information about his war experience. If he could jot down some notes, Forester would then take what he’d written and transform it into a piece for The Saturday Evening Post.

As it turned out, the pilot had a way with the pen. When Forester received Dahl’s musings, he sent along a note saying “Did you know you were a writer? — I haven’t changed a word.” And the piece was published as “Shot Down Over Libya”  in the August 1942 edition of The Saturday Evening Post (though it isn’t true that Dahl was shot down — he was already on his way to a great career in fiction).

going soloThe war remained an inspiration. A year later, Disney published his first children’s book, The Gremlins, about a group of mischievous creatures who wreak havoc in the plane-filled skies of World War Two. In keep with Remembrance Day, it fits to mention that his memoir Going Solo gives a detailed account of his wartime experience.

And I can’t close without saying something about Quentin Blake, who illustrated so many of Dahl’s books. You would think, reading The BFG and others, that the words and the pictures came from one mind, they fit that well together. My daughter loves to draw, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen her quite as inspired as she was when we first read The BFG. She was torn between her wish for another chapter, and her wish for a break so she could go and sketch out her own version of Blake’s giant and the little Sophie in her nightgown.

mrs armitageBlake was still a boy when Dahl was crash-landing his warplanes, but what a treat to find that his first published drawings appeared in Punch magazine when he was just a teenager — remember this was home for A.A. Milne and Ernest Shepard early in their careers. Later on, Blake illustrated for a number of other writers, and like Shepard was an author in his own right. In our house, we adore his story Mrs. Armitage on Wheels. The Daily Telegraph wrote that “Blake is beyond brilliant. He’s anarchic, moral, infinitely subversive, sometimes vicious, socially acute, sparse when he has to be, exuberantly lavish in the detail when he feels like it. He can tell wonderful stories without a single word, but his partnership with Roald Dahl was made in heaven. Or somewhere.”

Well — we concur.

For more about Quentin Blake, click here. Visit Dahl’s whizzpopping website here. Read Elizabeth Renzetti’s Fantastic Mr. Dahl.


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When our legs grew out of our heads

Creepy stone bunny stumbled upon in the forest sometime last century

Creepy stone bunny stumbled upon in the forest sometime last century

Once upon a time I used a Polaroid camera and went around taking pictures of things that inspired me. Mossy tombstones and cabbage moths and trees growing in strange places. It was so satisfying, the way the image slid out of the camera, presented in a tidy white frame. Often I liked the mistakes best — the things that showed up in the image that I hadn’t expected.

I don’t take so many photographs anymore, but there are days when I’m out walking that I mentally collect images. I can feel a kind of shutter clicking in my mind when I see certain things: a man strolling across the street from his apartment building in shorts, t-shirt and fuzzy brown slippers, cigarette tucked behind his ear. When I click my imaginary camera, the corner store at the other side of the street is visible in the frame, and I know he’s going to get matches. He can’t be bothered to put shoes on. I store the image away in that mysterious place where stories gather.

I have piles of dusty old photos getting blurry over time. When I open the box I keep them in, I smell the toxic smell of a Polaroid photo ripped open — because for a while this is what I would do to the odd photo, tear the white frame off and take the backing away so I could see the wall through the image pinned on it.  Now our walls are full of children’s drawings instead. But I sense a parallel in the way my daughter collects images. We come home from any number of adventures and she draws what she remembers — what stood out to her from the day. Or we read the Roald Dahl‘s The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) and she draws the pictures in a style surprisingly like Quentin Blake.

Chapter Two: Sophie meets the BFG

Chapter Two: Sophie meets the BFG

It’s amazing to watch the stages of a child’s drawing — from squiggly, nonsensical lines to somewhat recognizable shapes, and then to heads with legs growing out of them. And then to curly eyelashes and lips and people in profile and landscapes that show an understanding of perspective. Apparently the stages are remarkably similar for most children, and have names like “pre-tadpole” and “tadpole” — the latter being a circle with at least two lines coming out of it.

The AAA Lab at Stanford sees it this way: “A common explanation for the ubiquitous tadpole stage is that children are merely trying to symbolize a person and do not put a premium on realism. While this may be true, it does not explain the specific tadpole form…. when children look down at their bodies, they see their arms coming from their head. (Stretch your arms to the side and then look down.) Therefore, early on, children draw pictures combining their head and body as one component. ” Check out the Lab’s children’s drawing page for more.

Unhappy tadpole?

Unhappy tadpole?

Just as an aside, check out The Impossible Project, which intends to bring new life to the Polaroid camera and its factory in Enschede, NL. The site lays out the history and the challenges ahead, and quotes the inventor of instant photography, Edwin Land: “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.”


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