August 28, 2003

James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl


I finished reading this aloud to David the other night. While it wasn't precisely a favorite of mine as a kid, I happily checked it out of the library on any number of occasions, and so several months ago I bought in eager anticipation of a magical, joyful romp.


I remembered James as brave, inventive, persevering. I remembered Old Green Grasshopper as kindly and wise. I have all kinds of memories of this book which, alas, don't seem to match the reality.

In a book of essays I'll be reviewing some time in the next few days, C.S. Lewis talks about reading more in a book than is really there--about filling in the gaps with one's imagination and bringing an otherwise dull book to life, generally without noticing that you're doing it. That seems an apt description of what I must have done as a child.

To be fair, a good reader of fiction will always do this; it's his job, after all. But some books lend themselves to it more than others, and some in their richness bring forth a corresponding richness from the reader's mind--a richness that sometimes goes on and on long after one has finished the book. (I saw a web site the other day that describes the various fonts available for typesetting Tolkien's Elvish languages.)

But sometimes a young and enthusiastic and imaginative reader can bring forth wonders from a book that's really rather ordinary and prosaic. And while James and the Giant Peach isn't that bad, it certainly lacks the charm I remember. For example, James certainly manages to come up with a solution for every problem the Peach and its passengers encounter, but he hasn't much personality. Old Green Grasshopper plays a mean fiddle, and he's certainly a nice enough giant bug, but he fails to do anything that strikes me as wise or particularly kindly. I think I must have endowed him with my grandfather's virtues simply because he was old.

In fact, the only bit that still worked for me was near the very beginning, when the strange little man gives James the brown bag of magic thingies.

Having just turned forty, I have to ask myself, "Is it my fault? Have I turned into an old fuddy-duddy? Have I become incapable of appreciating good children's books?" And I don't think that's the case, given that I've really enjoyed most of the books I've read to David over the last couple of years. And while David listened attentively each night, he wasn't particularly excited by the book either.

An interesting sidelight--Jane asked David today which of the many chapter books I've read him over the last year did he like best. I was surprised (and pleased) to find that it was the very first one-- The Hobbit.

Posted by Will Duquette at August 28, 2003 08:26 PM

Ian said:

Peach has always been one of my least favorite of Dahl's children's books. I far prefer Mathilda.

Deb said:

My favorite was "The BFG" which he wrote just after his wife, Patricia Neal, had the stroke and was going thru speech therapy. David might like it but it's a bit of a tongue twister to read aloud.

Will Duquette said:

I think the bit that annoyed me most is that the book is full of humorous poems--that change meter abruptly and erratically and don't always scan properly. We've got a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on the shelf, and I'm almost afraid to open it for fear that the Oompa Loompa's songs (which I remember fondly) will have the same defects.

Lyndsey said:

I find that Roald Dahl's work tends to lose its appeal when we hit adulthood, yet we cannot escape the memory of the effect it had on us as children. it is perhaps the biggest shame that no adult feels brave enough to write serious academic reviews of his work; could it be the big brains are scared of looking like they really do enjoy childrens books?