“Turning the Alphabet into Magic”: Celebrating Roald Dahl by Lauren Donovan

Happy Roald Dahl Day, readers! Despite being a full-blown grown-up now (ick), I still have very clear, specific memories from my childhood of reading The BFG (dream jars!), The Witches (square feet inside their heels!), and Matilda (hide the newt!). In particular, I remember how I felt listening to his stories read aloud and the reaction they prompted. The prose was so matter-of-fact, though the story was often outlandish. It had the power to make kids feel like our imaginations weren’t at all overblown. Here was an adult who had written books about such fantastical things, combined with a delicious skepticism toward adults that we could very much identify with. He gave credence to our suspicion that grown-ups were to be pitied, so sure of their misguided convictions about what was possible or proper or preposterous.

Dahl had an affection for the underdog, infusing his scrappy heroes and heroines with just enough hope that we never feared a situation might be inescapable. His characters had pluck and determination, even when others in their life looked them over or pushed them aside. In hindsight, I’m also struck by the great sense of loyalty that is a constant thread in his stories. No matter the underdog, Dahl always gave his protagonists the drive to stick up for the downtrodden, even when they themselves were rather sorry cases.

Random House Kids at Matilda

Earlier this summer, I went with a group of my Random House Kids colleagues to see Matilda: The Musical, which I’d recommend to anyone (really, to everyone). In its rave review of the show, the New York Times wrote that the story “is about words and language, books and stories, and their incalculable worth as weapons of defense, attack and survival. It’s about turning the alphabet into magic, and using it to rule the world.” Indeed, one of the most striking features of the show is the theatre décor: the stage is framed by clusters of letters, some which group together to create meaning in their proximity, and others just magically suspended. It underlines the heart of Matilda, and of Dahl’s writing in general, that fact that reading is like a magical talent that can empower any child, no matter his or her circumstances in life.

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Like Matilda, many of Dahl’s classics have been translated to the stage and screen, and I suspect today’s readers are meeting him first in those ways. As much as I love the films of Fantastic Mr. Fox and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, there really is nothing like reading his spunky, colorful, wry words and feeling like you have uncovered a great find—and an author who truly understood kids.

Lauren Donovan is a Matilda Wormwood fangirl, loves to read, works at Random House Children’s Books, and is hoping someone will give her the Roald Dahl box set for Christmas this year. Any takers?