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The Enduring Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl, Popular Children's Author

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Cover art of the children's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Knopf, Random House
Check in the juvenile fiction section of your public library. Look in the children's section of your local bookstore. Most probably, you will find multiple copies of several books by Roald Dahl as well as single copies of some others. Read lists of authors recommended for kids who like Harry Potter, and you'll find the name Roald Dahl there. Watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach, and when the movie credits run, you will see they were based on children's books by Roald Dahl. Who was this man and what is it that makes his books continue to be so popular?

Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl, whose parents were Norwegian, was born in South Wales in 1916. He had five sisters, one of whom died at age seven. When Dahl was three, his father died, and when he was seven, he was sent to boarding school. In later accounts, he related the bullying and beatings he endured there. Rather than go on to the university, Dahl opted to go to work for Shell, in the hope, realized when he was sent to Africa, that he would get to travel.

Dahl served in the Royal Air Force in World War II, attaining the rank of wing commander. During his military service, he was injured. Later, when those injuries flared up, Dahl was sent home to England. Then, he was sent to Washington, D.C. to work at the British Embassy. It was while working as an assistant air attache that Dahl began his writing career. His first children's book, The Gremlins, was published in 1943. He did go on to write for adults, but he did not write another children's book for 17 years. Dahl said that it was not until he had children of his own that he felt he could write for children. According to Donald Sturrock, Dahl's official biographer, "He [Roald Dahl] told me how easy he found it to see the world from a child's perspective and how he thought this was perhaps the secret to writing successfully for children." (Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl, page 5)

In his adult life, Dahl, who had a reputation for being a cynic with a mistrust for social institutions, suffered considerable tragedy. In 1953, Dahl married actress Patricia Neal, and they went on to have five children. One daughter died of the complications of measles and their baby son suffered massive head injuries when his carriage was hit by a taxi. His wife suffered several major strokes. Dahl's reputation as a harsh taskmaster stood him in good stead as he helped her recover. The marriage ended in divorce and Dahl went on to marry again.

Roald Dahl's Children's Books

It is difficult to describe Dahl's books because they are so different from the typical children's book. The author's childhood experiences, the death of his sister and his father, and his unhappy years in boarding school influenced his work as did his vivid imagination. Dahl's books might be called modern fairy tales. Like Grimm's fairy tales, they are sometimes violent or grotesque and have often been the subject of some controversy. However, they are also well written, humorous and very entertaining. Children break free from their cruel oppressors (adults) and go on to have the most amazing adventures. Goodness triumphs; revenge is sweet; evil is punished. It's no wonder that children 9-12 have continued to enjoy Dahl's tales for decades, as have younger children who have enjoyed Dahl's books as read alouds.

In all, Dahl wrote 22 children's books, including three books that were published after his death; he also wrote two autobiographical books. His most well-known children's books include:

While these chapter books are great for independent reading, Dahl's books also work well as read-alouds for third grade and up. You might find that you get almost as much enjoyment out of the books as your children do.

Sources: Official Roald Dahl site, Buckinghamshire County Museum, Random House: Roald Dahl, Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock (Simon & Schuster, 2010. ISBN: 9781416550822)

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