‘A storytelling genius’ – Irish writers on what Roald Dahl means to them
Irish authors reveal what Roald Dahl’s books mean to them – both as readers and as writers
Illustration by Dearbhla Kelly: ‘I went with this because I couldn’t choose a favourite character so I just tried to cram as many references (from memory) in there as possible’
Illustration by Chris Judge: ‘I drew the Enormous Crocodile as I was obsessed with sellotaping pieces of paper together to draw a really long version of him as a kid’
Illustration by Fatti Burke: ‘This is the grand high witch from The Witches (my favourite Roald Dahl book growing up). I don’t know why I imagined her so glamorously, this is her with her mask ON, obviously’
I didn’t know Roald Dahl’s books when I was a child and I’ve never read his adult fiction. I started to read his children’s books when I was a teacher, some time in the early 1980s. I had a first-year English class on Friday afternoons. Every other day of the week they were charming and bright. On Fridays, coming in to me after the toxic combination of PE and Religion, they were unteachable little bastards. So I read to them. I read The Witches out loud and they loved it. And so did I. I’d almost forget they were there and where I was, until I heard a laugh or a gasp. I loved the kid in the story and his granny and I particularly loved the nastiness and stupidity of everyone else. The bell would ring and no one would budge until I got to the end of the paragraph. The Witches got me up to Halloween and the midterm break.
Then I read Danny, the Champion of the World and I realised quite early that I was reading one of the best books I’d ever read. I fought the idea at first; it was only a kids’ book. But it wasn’t “only” anything. In fiction, fathers are often absent or brutes. But in Danny the father is wonderful. Everything he says and does is a message of love to his son. It was the best description of the love between a father and his son that I’d read. Since then, only Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has matched it.
Roddy Doyle is a Booker-prize winning author
In an age when children’s authors – almost all authors, really – have to make themselves available to the world as personalities, as extensions of the brand of their books, it’s easy to forget that in the 1970s and ‘80s, when Roald Dahl became the giant of writing, he was pretty much the only living author kids knew anything about.
We knew he worked in a shed. We knew he had his appendix in a jar. We knew what he looked like, sounded like and – thanks to his autobiography Boy – that he had flown fighter planes, put mice in sweet jars, and warmed toilet seats for school prefects.
It meant that the impact of his books was doubled down upon by the force of his personality. The result for any young reader at the time was explosive. His words shaped how we viewed the world and how we viewed stories but – for me, anyhow – the person shaped how we viewed writing and the writer.
There was Roald Dahl, flesh and blood rather than mere name on a spine.
His greatness is clear in how much modern authors are still measured against him. David Walliams is routinely described as the heir to Dahl but his influence is quickly apparent in countless books in any library. (However, a word must also go to Quentin Blake, who became so integral to the stories that publishers have been recreating that aesthetic ever since.) His stature is surely also measured in how many children’s authors took up their pens because they discovered his books at exactly the right moment in their lives. I can say with certainty that is what happened with me.
I would have discovered him in the early 1980s, towards the final years of his life. It meant being able to gorge on the classics already published and to enjoy the promise of a brand new novel. Maybe The Twits was the first to hook me. Or Revolting Rhymes & Dirty Beasts. Either way, every book seemed perfect to me. The dark humour. The love of the horrid. The fantastic characters. The fantastical plots. But all of it pure, unique, never-to-be-bettered Dahl.
Shane Hegarty is the author of the Darkmouth series of books for children
My favourite quote of all time is from one of Dahl’s lesser known books, The Minpins. Written in 1990 but published after his death in 1991, it tells the story of Little Billy who sneaks into the Forest of Sin and finds tiny little people called the Minpins who live inside trees. The final line reads: “And above all, 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.” Watch the world with glittering eyes. It’s a profound yet simple idea and informs how I live as a writer, stepping back, listening, observing.
Dahl understood children like few other writers. He knew they were smart, with unlimited potential. He also knew that they felt deeply about things. He never talked down to them and always told them the truth: life can be scary (The Witches), loyalty and goodness will overcome evil (Matilda), selfish children with selfish parents deserve to be punished (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).
I love Dahl’s books. Quite simply, I think he was a storytelling genius. He managed to be funny, rude and deep, often all on the same page. My favourite Dahl book is Danny, the Champion of the World which has one of the most rounded, loving and compassionate portrays of a father/son relationship that I’ve read in any book, for children or for adults.
It’s followed closely by Fantastic Mr Fox as its brilliant song about the three nasty farmers that Mr Fox is determined to outwit never fails to make me laugh: “Boggis and Bunce and Bean/ One short, one fat, one lean./ These horrible crooks,/ so different in looks,/ were nonetheless equally mean.” It’s a short novel but it packs quite a punch.
I’ve spent the last 20 years reading children’s books for pleasure (like Dahl and many other children’s writers, I’ve never fully grown up) and also in my role as a children’s book reviewer and creative writing teacher. It’s rare to come across a writer who even touches the hemline of Dahl’s brilliance. He was, and is, magic and his books will continue to amuse and inspire readers of all ages. Long live Roald Dahl! Sarah Webb is Writer in Residence for Dún Laoghaire/Rathdown
Reading Roald Dahl books was not a vital part of my childhood. If I wasn’t reading fantasy novels like CS Lewis’ Narnia series, then I probably had my head in an encyclopaedia, learning about ancient history or finding out how steam engines worked. Dahl’s books never really figured for me back then.
My experience of Roald Dahl was more based on the movies made from his writing. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, based on his book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, seemed to me to break the mould of children’s films. The bad kids were all fabulously vile and it was so refreshing when they got their comeuppances. I didn’t realise it at the time but Dahl’s grotesque and fantastical sense of humour was also at play in his screenplay for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The nightmarish Child Catcher was entirely Dahl’s invention. Loving those movies still didn’t lead me to read the books.
Years later, I was asked to illustrate a poem by Dahl for an anthology. It’s about Miranda Mary Piker who is “such a rude and disobedient little kid” that she gets thrown into the in the peanut-brittle mixer and is eaten unknowingly by her own father! I had a lot of fun illustrating the poem and that last nasty touch of familial cannibalism gave me the incentive to go off and read some more of his work, but I still didn’t get stuck into the fiction, I much preferred reading his autobiographical books Boy and Going Solo.
The standout moment for me from Boy is when Dahl’s sister crashes their car, throwing him through the windscreen and his nose is almost completely severed; it hangs by a thread of flesh until he is taken to a hospital. You can see how incidents like this in his extraordinary life informed his work.
Having my own children and reading to them finally gave me a chance to enjoy all the gore and the rudeness I had been missing in Dahl’s children’s books.
We read them many times and they were all great fun, but our favourites were probably The Twits and Matilda and of course Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As an illustrator, I love his sense of the comically horrific and would love another chance to illustrate one of his stories, but I have to admit that the books are completed perfectly by Quentin Blake’s wonderfully lively ink and wash pictures.
It took me a long time to come round but in the end I think I liked Roald Dahl’s books even more than my kids did. PJ Lynch is an author and illustrator. He holds the position of Laureate na nÓg (Children’s Laureate)
I wasn’t a total nerd in school but I knew a lot of big words. One of my first really big words was “misanthropic”. I had heard it applied to Roald Dahl. It took me a while to find it in my Lexicon Webster Volume 1 (A to Oyster-bed). When I did I felt aggrieved. Roald Dahl couldn’t be this thing defined in my giant dictionary. Roald Dahl was surely as much fun as my dad; there was no way he didn’t like people. I asked my mother about it. Oh yes, she said, I’ve heard that.
He locks himself away in a shed at the bottom of his garden and refuses to come out or to talk to anyone and he smokes cigarettes non-stop and writes his stories with a pencil and he’s a right grumpy yoke by all accounts. That settled it. My mother obviously knew him. I didn’t care, though, because I loved him. Danny, the Champion of the World is one of the reasons I wanted to be a writer. A boy and his father, best friends, living in a gypsy wagon, pulling off a master-stroke of poaching: it was good versus evil, it was the perfect story, and it made me a constant reader. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More kept me awake at night; the stories were hilarious and dark.
It was my most prized possession. I lost it in a house move in 1985 and I mourn it still. I loved how Roald Dahl’s comeuppance-deliverers were nearly always villains themselves, wonderful rogues: Mr Fox, Willy Wonka, the hitch-hiking “fingersmith” from Six More: bullies and bigots and blowhards and nasties of all sizes and ages and shades were constantly being stolen from, turned into animals, outwitted, killed, having their tables brutally and irrevocably turned, invariably by deliciously shady characters.
Roald Dahl knew exactly what kids wanted to read about. He was never patronising; he was always generous, letting you in on the secret, letting you share in the glory of retribution, letting you know that the world was full of swaggering, sneering, idiotic adults, but that it was also full of magic. You just had to know where to look.
Donal Ryan’s latest novel, All We Shall Know, is released this month
When I was a kid, the publication of a new Roald Dahl book was a serious event. Most of my favourite authors, from Richmal Crompton to Noel Streatfeild, were long dead. Once you’d read all their books, that was it. But Dahl was different. Dahl kept giving us more.
I was born in 1975, which made me part of a lucky generation whose childhood coincided with the publication of some of Dahl’s greatest and best-loved books.
I was five when The Twits made their debut and six when George’s Marvellous Medicine appeared – when I went to Temple Street to get a grommet the following year, it was one of the books my parents bought me for my hospital stay. The BFG came out the year I turned seven; The Witches appeared a year later. Matilda, probably Dahl’s last great novel, was published when I was 12.
As soon as each of these books came out, the Carey household had a copy of it. Of course, some were more popular in our house than others. I was never a huge fan of Danny, the Champion of the World, and found Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator inexplicably terrifying. But I read and reread the rest countless times (and even performed in a drama class adaptation of Revolting Rhymes, most of which I still know by heart).
Thirty years on, it’s impossible to overstate how original Dahl’s writing was and is. Today, there are plenty of children’s writers who attempt his mix of grotesquerie, humour, word play, wild and beautiful magic, terror and fart jokes. But they all lack something – the genuine edge, the sense of real nastiness and danger – that makes Dahl’s writing so vivid and appealing.
The first time I read The Witches, in which the hero is turned into a mouse by the eponymous villains, I became more and more nervous as I reached the final few pages. “Surely NOW is the time that he gets turned back into a human,” I thought. I won’t reveal exactly how the novel ends, but suffice to say, few authors would have chosen it as a happy ending.
But horrified as I was, I wouldn’t really have wanted it any other way. And today’s children clearly feel the same. My nephew Arlo is six years old, and the first book he ever read by himself was The Twits. He loved it, but he had to get his own new copy. Our old family one had been read to tatters.
Anna Carey’s novel The Making of Mollie will be published in October by O’Brien Press
I was introduced to Roald Dahl – indoctrinated really – when I was about five, maybe six years old. I lived in England at the time, just outside Luton, and went to school in St Vincent’s Roman Catholic Lower School. There was a woman called Miss O’Byrne, who wasn’t our regular teacher, but who would read to us two or three afternoons a week, maybe because she was good at voices. She could really bring a book to life.
She read us Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach – multiple times, I seem to recall. I absolutely adored those stories. Unlike other children’s authors, he didn’t talk down to his readers. He treated you as an absolute equal and that was how he earned your confidence as a reader. There was nothing cosy about the worlds he conjured up in his books. Yes, there was a warmth to his stories but they were never overly sentimental and they often involved some perverse version of they-all-lived- happily-ever-after.
He had a wonderfully macabre sense of humour, which I presume was the Norwegian in him. His stories were unlike anything else I read as a child. Most children’s books had grown-ups as strong role models and hero figures. Not these.
In Roald Dahl’s world, children, who were invariably kind and clever, almost always triumphed over adults, who were often villainous and stupid. This was seditious stuff when I was a child in the 1970s. It felt naughty enjoying those stories.
He had unforgettably colourful characters, like Aunt Sponge in James and the Giant Peach. He was playful with words, turning the language inside out and upside down, like James Joyce for children. We can think him for the word scrumdiddlyumtious among many others.
My younger brother, Richard, became a fan of his later books, like The BFG and The Witches. One day in either 1986 or 1987 there was an article in a newspaper announcing that Roald Dahl was going to be attending a children’s book fair in the RDS the following Saturday morning. I can still remember our excitement getting the number seven bus from the Ballybrack to Simmonscourt in Ballsbridge.
We got off the bus to discover that the RDS was empty. The event was off, we were told. Roald Dahl was ill. We were absolutely crushed.
Paul Howard is an author who this week published the latest Ross O’Carroll-Kelly book, A Game of Throw-Ins