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Roald Dahl

Tuesday, 17 September 2002

From the publication of James and the Giant Peach and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory in the 1960's to his death in 1990, Roald Dahl became the most successful children's author in the world. A decade later, a fresh generation of children seek out his work with instinctive fanatacism. His creations endure - through Hollywood movies, theatre adaptations and musical works, but still most potently of all through the pure magic of his writing upon the page.

The Basics

Born: Llandaff, Glamorgan, September 13th, 1916
Died: November 23rd, 1990
Jobs: Shell representative in Tanganyika, Fighter Pilot, Air Attache, Wing Commander, Author
First Book for Young People: The Gremlins, 1943


Roald Dahl was born in Wales of Norwegian parents - the child of a second marriage. His father and elder sister died when Roald was just three. His mother was left to raise two stepchildren and her own four childrens. Roald was her only son.

He had an unhappy time at school - at Llandaff Cathedral School, at St Peter's prep school in Weston-Super-Mare and then at Repton in Derbyshire. He excelled at sports, particularly heavyweight boxing, but was deemed by his English master to be "quite incapable of marshalling his thoughts on paper". There was one advantage to going to Repton, however - the school was close to Cadbury's and the company regularly involved the schoolboys in testing new varieties of chocolate bars.

Dahl's unhappy time at school was to influence his writing greatly. He once said that what distinguished him from most other children's writers was "this business of remembering what it was like to be young". Roald's childhood and schooldays are the subject of his autobiography Boy.

At 18, rather than going to university, Roald joined the Public Schools Exploring Society's expedition to Newfoundland. He then started work for Shell as a salesman in Dar es Salaam. He was 23 when war broke out and signed up with the Royal Air Force in Nairobi. At first, the station doctor balked at his height (6ft 6in) but he was accepted as a pilot officer and spent the early part of the war flying birdplane Gladiator fighters against the Italians in the Western Desert of Libya. Dahl's exploits in the war are detailed in his autobiography Going Solo. They include having a luger pointed at his head by the leader of a German convoy, crash-landing in no-man's land (and sustaining injuries that entailed having his nose pulled out and reshaped!) and even surviving a direct hit during the Battle of Athens.

Eventually, he was sent home as an invalid but transferred, in 1942, to Washington as an air attaché. Here Dahl's writing career began in earnest following a meeting with C S Forrester, author of Captain Hornblower. Forrester asked Dahl to tell him his version of the war, intending to write an account for a future publication. Dahl chose to set down his experiences on paper. Forrester was so impressed with Dahl's writing that he immediately found a magazine editor to take it for publication. Roald remained in the States, achieving recognition through short-stories for newspapers and magazines.

Roald Dahl's first novel for children was not, as many suppose, James and the Giant Peach but The Gremlins, which was published in 1943 and adapted from a script written for Disney. Dahl went on to write several film scripts, inlcuding the James Bond adventure You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He disliked many of the film adaptations of his own work which appeared in his lifetime.

Dahl and his family moved back to England in 1960 and settled in Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire at Gipsy House. It was here, in a small hut at the bottom of the garden, that he would write most of his unforgettable books. By all accounts, the hut was a dingy little place but one that Roald viewed as a cosy refuge. Christopher Simon Skyes in Harpers & Queen recalls: "A dirty plastic curtain covered the window. In the centre stood a faded wing-back armchair, inherited from his mother, and it was here that Dahl sat, his feet propped up on a chest, his legs covered by a tartan rug, supporting on his knees a thick roll of corrugated paper upon which was propped his writing board. Photographs, drawings and other mementoes were pinned to the walls, while a table on his right was covered with a collection of favourite curiosities such as one of his own arthritic hip bones, and a remarkably heavy ball made from the discarded silver paper of numerous chocolate bars consumed during his youth."

Roald's career had to take second place when his family suffered several tragedies. His oldest daughter Olivia died after a bout of measles developed into encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). Roald's three-month-old son Theo was brain-damaged after a road accident. With the help of two friends, an engineer and a neurosurgeon, Roald spent months devising a valve for draining fluid from the brain to enable Theo to live independent of machines. The Wade-Dahl-Till valve is still in use today and Theo has made a spectacular recovery - now in his 30's, he recently married. Patricia Neal, Roald's first wife, suffered three massive stroked but, with Roald's help and encouragement, she too recovered sufficiently to resume her acting career.

Both James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were published in the USA several years before appearing in the UK in 1967. Of the latter, Elaine Moss wrote in The Times, "It is the funniest children's book I have read in years; not just funny but shot through with a zany pathos which touches the young heart." The book went on to achieve phenomenal success all over the world. The Chinese edition was the biggest printing of any book ever - two million copies!

An unbroken string of bestselling titles followed, including The BFG, Danny The Champion of the World, The Twits, The Witches, Boy and Going Solo. Sales of Matilda, Roald's penultimate book, broke all previous records for a work of children's fiction with UK sales of over half a million paperbacks in six months.

Roald Dahl died in 1990 at the age of 74. He was working to the end on The Vicar of Nibbleswicke.

Since Roald Dahl's death, his books have more than mantained their popularity. Total sales of the UK editions are around 37 million, with more than 1 million copies sold every year! Sales have grown particularly strongly in America where Dahl books are now achieving the bestselling status that curiously proved elusive during the author's lifetime.

In a World Book Day 1999 survey amongst 15,000 7-11 year-olds, Matilda was voted the most popular children's book. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Twits and The BFG also featured in the top ten.

Movies of James and the Giant Peach and Matilda have been much more successful, comercially and artistically, than the earlier adaptations. A film of The BFG and a new version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are on the way.

The Roald Dahl Children's Gallery, part of Bucks County Museum in Aylesbury, is a major attraction for all Dahl fans.

The South Wales Echo is currently campaigning for a Cardiff stree to be named after Dahl. "He would have been absolutely thrilled," says Liccy.

Throughout his life Roald Dahl gave time and money to help people in need. After his death, his widow Liccy Dahl established The Roald Dahl Foundation to continue this tradition. The Foundation offers grants in three key areas - Literacy, Neurology and Haematology - supporting or funding projects that help people in many practical ways. The Foundation is also bringing classical music to children by making it fun, through music compositions based on Roald Dahl's work. For further information, please contact The Roald Dahl Foundation on 01494 890465.

What He Said...

"I have a passion for teaching kids to become readers, to become comfortable with a book, not daunted. Books shouldn't be daunting, they should be funny, exciting and wonderful; and learning to be a reader gives a terrific advantage."

"If you are going to get anywhere in life you have to read a lot of books."

"Writing is all propaganda, in a sense. You can get at greediness and selfishness by making them look ridiculous. The greatest attribute of a human being is kindness, and all the other qualities like bravery and perseverance are secondary to that."

"I only write about things that are exciting or funny. Children know I'm on their side."

"If you want to remember what it's like to live in a child's world, you've got to get down on your hands and knees and live like that for a week. You'll find you have to look up at all these... giants around you who are always telling you what to do and what not to do."

"Watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it."

What They Said About Roald Dahl...

His appeal to children...

"He speaks to children. He doesn't speak down to them. He asks them to think, he asks them to be afraid, and he asks them to conquer his fears."
Danny de Vito

"Sometimes his work was a little too strong for grown-ups. It was scary and messy, but children understood that this was only because lots of adults were not very nie themselves, beastly even."
Yorkshire Post

"Roald Dahl... addressed his child readers over the heads and behind the backs of disapproving adults, and they loved him for it. He revelled in the vulgar and disgusting, drawing delighted cries on "yuck" with his graphic descriptions of food caught in the bear of Mr Twit."
The Independent

"You never get the feeling when reading Dahl that he was showing off for the sake of it, although there's often no shortage of verbal pyrotechnics in his stories. One of his many skills lay in not talking down to either his junior or grown-up audiences. Sheer magic."
Publishing News

"Dahl books, strong on plot and instilled with a tremendous sense of mischief, insist on seeing the world through children's eyes, and often portray adults as silly, uncomprehending or insensitive; no wonder kids love them."
Sainsbury's - The Magazine

His importance as a writer...

"One of he most widely read and influential writers of our generation."
The Times

"Dahl's influence on the generations of readers who have moves enthusiastically from one of his novels  to the next has been dramatic."
The Scotsman

"No one could dispute the huge role he played in getting children hooked into reading by offering them the kind of stories they really wanted to read. Stylistcally too, he helped new readers by using language simply and accurately. The quality of his writing is easily discernible by the fluency with which it can be read aloud... For many children Roald Dahl is synonymous with reading. He is the one author whose books are currency among children, being passed eagerly from hand to hand as soon as they appear."
The Independent

"It may well be that (Roald Dahl) is better known than any other English-language author of the second half of this century."
Independent on Sunday

"No other writer has combines imagination, wit and quirkiness as well as Roald Dahl. His books show great literary skill, blending a vigirous style with a powerful use of language."
Junior Education

"If you want to talk about children's books you have to start with Dahl and finish with him."
Susan Hill

"He was our modern Pied Piper."
The Times

"Roald Dahl was the greatest storyteller of our time."
Sainsbury's - The Magazine

"Roald Dahl was to children's books what the late, great Jimi Hendrix was to guitar playing: a dazzling beacon that was so far ahead of the rest that none could catch him and few could match."
Publishing News

"Over a 20-year period, from James and the Giant Peach to The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me, Dahl wrote an astonishing series of books for children of all ages which will be in print as long as there are bookshops to stock them... he is one of the greatest children's writers of all time, and he finest teller of tales Britain has produced inn the second half o this century."
Evening Standard

Memories of the man...

"I ended up spending four hours with the author... indelibly etched on my memory. He wore a dark blue shirt with blue shorts from which his impossibly long legs protruded like twin sticks; his long, lean, marvellously expressive face was creased with years of laughter lines, his mouth never far from a smile that reached his eyes every time. Dahl was amusing, interesting, stimulating company and a charming, punctilious, entertaining host."
Maria Lexton, Time Out

"Every evening after my sister Lucy and I had gone to bed, my father would walk slowly up the stairs, his bones creaking louder than the staircase, to tell us a story. I can see him now, leaning against the wall of our bedroom with his hands in his pockets looking into the distance, reaching into his imagination. It was here, in our bedroom, that he began telling many of the stories that later became the books you know."
Ophelia Dahl

"He loved to collect things. When he was young it was bird's eggs and chocolate wrappers. As an adult he collected wine and paintings. However, he also collected ideas. He has a small exercise book in which he wrote down words that he liked the sound of. His mind was twitchy, like his fingers, which were always moving, as though he wished he could wrap them around a pencil and keep writing."
Ophelia Dahl

"He loves food. It was, like literature and music, one of the essential good things in life. When he came to Gipsy House, after moving from America, all he was worried about was his pea steamer!"
Liccy Dahl

"He did everything with panache right down to cooking poached eggs which he served in pieces of fried bread with holes cut out of them to make a nest... There was never a moment when he wasn't inventing or making life fun."
Liccy Dahl

"For those who knew him well, the most important things were his fantastic enthusiasm and his great generosity. "Treats!" he would cry, displaying a dinner table laden with quantities of his favourite food: Norwegian prawns, or lobster, or caviar or scrumptious roast beef. Second and third helpings were pressed on his lucky guests. With the coffee he would place on the table a grubby plastic box crammed with chocolate goodies, irresistible to dogs, children and adults alike."
Spiv Barran, Roald's sister-in-law

The Books...

"Rich in language, humour and charm, The BFG is a wonderful romp in the land of giants."

"Candid and absolutely compelling."
Time Out on Boy

"Dahl's autobiographies, Boy and Going Solo, reveal a man whose life was as rich as his works. In them, he describes central themes to his fiction - the injustices and corporal punishments of boarding-school life, his travels in Africa and his wartime exploits."
Junior Education

"This lively tale of a bad-tempered crocodile shares the familiar thread of gruesome detail and slapstick humour which children love."
Child Education on The Enormous Crocodile

"Full of quirky invention."
The Daily Telegraph on Esio Trot

"Going Solo has to be the most exciting autobiography ever written."
Early Times

"It is not often that the English Language has been put to such good purpose."
Junior Bookshelf on The Great Automatic Grammatizator and Other Stories

"One of children's literature's classic stories... Master storytellers Roald Dahl stretched the imagination of the child like no other."
Lancashire Evening Post on James and the Giant Peach

"Dahl is in sparkling form with those long lists of preposterous words - whangdoodles, hornswogglers, snozzwanglers and vermicious knids - which his readers adore."
Shirley Hughes on The Minpins

"The Minpins is a gripping tale of magic and mystery."
Young Telegraph

"The Twits is really good because it's silly and a bit disgusting,"
8 year-old reader quoted in Parents

"Dahl's wicked sense of humour is given full scope in this story... children of 6 to 10 years will lap this up."
Practical Parenting on The Twits

"A warm, witty tale of the most terrifying creatures on earth."
Yorkshire Post on The Witches

"Funny, wise and deliciously disgusting."
Judges of the Whitbread Award on The Witches


The Whitbread Award 1983 for The Witches
Federation of Children's Book Groups' Children's Book Award 1988 for Matilda