Danny the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl

Nine stars 

Dahl continues with his wonderful children’s stories, telling one that has a realistic flavour to it, sure to appeal to the masses. After the death of his mother as an infant, Danny is left to live with his father. Together, they forge a bond so close that no one can come between them. Living in a small caravan out back of the service station he owns, William raises Danny the best he can. One night, Danny wakes to find his father is not in the upper bunk bed and panics, but soon locates him strolling up the pathway. After intense questioning, Danny learns that his father has been out poaching pheasants, something that many of the poorer men have been known to do on the large estate of a pompous owner. Danny is enamoured at the possibility that they can do this together, but is cautioned against it, as it is a highly dangerous and illegal affair. When Danny cannot find his father a second time, he goes out looking, only to discover that things are tied up in proverbial knots. Sharing an idea for the pheasant catching, Danny finds a way to get in on the act. What follows is a treacherous scheme that could fail at any moment, or reap rewards for many. Perhaps my favourite story to date in this re-reading adventure, Dahl dazzles and impresses at the same time.

I vaguely remember my father reading me this story when I was young, which helped fuel my desire to try it again for myself. The ease with which the story flows is surely one of its greatest assets, alongside some great characters and a plot that is as believable as it is relatable to at least some children. Able to convey a wonderful story in short order, Dahl continues to show how he earned the title of masterful children’s author of the 20th century. With a peppering mention of some other stories in his quiver (BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Dahl bridges a connection for his young readers, with just a touch of self-promotion. Short chapters foster a great adult-child joint experience and one can only hope that readers for decades to come will continue to be dazzled by the work Dahl made popular in my own youth. Rest assured, I will soon bring these stories out for my own son.

Kudos, Mr. Dahl for continuing to impress with your fluid prose. I love that warm feeling your books always impart. 

The Witches, by Roald Dahl

Nine stars

What is a witch? After my last book, all about the Salem Witch Trials, I have a pretty good idea about what the Puritans thought. However, it would serve me well to allow Roald Dahl to present an answer to that for his childhood readers. According to Dahl, a witch has claw-like fingers (always gloved), remains bald (but wears a wig), and has squared feet (no toes and a horror when shopping for shoes!). But, the most important piece of knowledge about witches is that they DESPISE children more than anything. From there, in a sort of faux memoir about his youth, Dahl recounts losing his parents in an automobile crash and living with a Norwegian grandmother. She, of course, knows much more about witches and counsels him about them, since Norway has had witches for centuries. While on holiday, young Dahl and his grandmother are in a hotel and stumble across a gathering of all English witches, who are meeting under the guise of a fairly popular and heart-warming organisation. What happens next will test young Dahl’s ability to remember all the traits and actions witches undertake, as well as a conspiracy that the Grand High Witch of the World has for all the children. A delightful book to pique the curiosity of the young reader without any trials, tortures, or tribulations. Salem or the quaint English seaside, witches are all over and Dahl finally helps us identify them. Do YOU know a witch in your daily life?

Dahl’s magical way of presenting things to children is highly entertaining and allows me, a full-fledged adult reader, to tackle an enjoyable and short piece. Intentionally bordering on the silly, Dahl offers his readers some background before setting sail on a reading voyage that will both educate and entertain. His personalising the story pulls the reader in a little more and, even faced with adversity, Dahl does not push things to the edge of despair. I have always liked Dahl stories in my youth and see now just how uplifting I feel. I hope that in a few years, when my son is ready for something a little more dense, we might explore the world of witches and all they have to offer.

Kudos, Mr. Dahl for another winner. Children have a goldmine of reading when they discover all that you had in your mind and put to paper.

James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl

Eight stars

I have always been taught to start at the beginning, which seemed like sage advice when I wanted to explore some of the children’s stories that Roald Dahl crafted over his long and illustrious career. Choosing this work, apparently his first stab at children’s literature, proved highly entertaining and a wonderful way to spend a few hours. After an accident claims the life of his parents, young James Henry Trotter is sent to live with his wicked aunts, facing a period of miserable adjustment. While out one day, he encounters a man who offers him a sack of magical beans that will, so the tale goes, react marvellously with the first living thing they encounter. James brings them home and while outside, the beans escape at the base of an old peach tree that has not shown any signs of life for many years. James witnesses a peach growing larger than anything he has ever seen in all his years and soon approaches it. He discovers a number of other creatures that have reacted with the beans, including a grasshopper, an earthworm, and a ladybug. Crawling inside a hole within this peach, James escapes the confines of his yard and sets about on an adventure with his new-found friends. Rolling through town, they eventually make their way to the open waters and find themselves marooned in the middle of the Atlantic. James and his ‘pesty’ friends use their wherewithal and conquer numerous enemies as they tackle a number adventures before them. James, in turn, learns the importance of new and exciting friendships, leaving some of the sorrow of his past behind him. Dahl at his best, proves how he became a household name amongst children’s authors.

As part of my 2017 reading goals, I thought I would pave the way and return to reading some of the classic books from my youth, in hopes of introducing them to my son in the coming years. Dahl has a way of telling a great story that will appease the young reader while also instilling great values and ideals into their little minds, sure to please parents and other adults. The stories have a degree of silliness, but also adventure and excitement, allowing the reader’s interest to be piqued to forge onwards a little more. While some books out there seek to create a spark amongst children by addressing modern characters and technologies, Dahl’s ideas and presentation are timeless, which I would venture to say might spurn children whose attention span has been whittled down by games and electronics to turn to these stories and take a moment to absorb all that is going on from chapter to chapter. Timeless classics are hard to discover in this fast-paced world, but Dahl has left these stories as breadcrumbs to discovering the wonders of early reading.

Kudos, Mr. Dahl for introducing me to reading and the love of books. I hope to bring another generation of readers up to see the wonders of your storytelling abilities.

Going Solo (Roald Dahl Autobiography #2), by Roald Dahl

Eight stars

“A life is made up of a great number of small incidents and a small number of great ones.” So opens the second and ‘adult-based’ portion of Roald Dahl’s autobiography. He makes perfectly clear that this is not such a book, for autobiographies are full of useless and boring information. Dahl seeks to offer the reader some of the key memories he had during his early adult life, particularly serving in the Second World War. Accepting a job with the Shell Company, Dahl is soon shipped to the African continent, working particularly in Dar es Salaam, part of what is currently Tanzania. During his travel aboard a ship to reach the far shores, Dahl learns why the upper class held use of hands when eating in such low regard and the ‘daytime entertainment’ they found acceptable on deck. Arriving in Africa, Dahl uses all his patience and understanding as he undertook a complete culture shock, a world where wildlife ran the show and humans knew their place. While the scenery was spectacular and the people highly entertaining, the rumblings of war could be heard on the horizon. Dahl finds himself evacuated from the region, only to join the RAF to help Britain in the forthcoming Second World War. Lanky, yet determined, Dahl is an unlikely pilot-in-training before he became a key member of the effort in North Africa. While serving, Dahl is involved in a significant aerial accident, captured in a story he penned, eventually bastardised and published in the Saturday Evening Post. Dahl seeks to correct the narrative for the reader in this piece of writing, as if one might worry he was seeking to make himself seem overly heroic. The crash leaves Dahl with significant injury, his nose caved into his fractured skull (interesting for those who remember his childhood injury to the same nose), and he is required to remain in hospital for upwards of two months. While he convalesces, Dahl continues penning his weekly letters to his mother, though remains careful to censor his news, so as not to have the letters destroyed. Once healthy enough to fly again, Dahl heads out to serve in Greece, where he comes face to face with the Nazis, trying to hold the onslaught back and keep the Allies in control of the area. As the fighting intensified, Dahl dodges many a proverbial bullet and heads to the Middle East, where he sobers up to much of what was going on in the region and the European Theatre, learning of the extreme anti-Semitism or ignored undertone of the Nazi atrocities. As the reader is pulled deeper into the life of this wonderful author, Dahl uses his wonderful prose to breathe life into his life story. A must read for anyone who loves a story of humour and utter despair, all in short order.

Having recently completed the first volume in this first-person narrative, I wanted to take some time to explore the adult life of this man whose stories tantalised me throughout my childhood. As Dahl continues the story, boarding schools are replaced with African-style boardrooms (open air villages) and a collection of characters that only Dahl could dream up. Those Dahl mentions turned from being men recollected into individuals with complex backstories or who shaped Dahl in his intense battles in Africa and the war zones he discovered. Using a collection of his letters penned to his mother, Dahl is able to recall some of the minutiae, which helps substantiate his many adventures. Dahl outwardly admits the need to use this letters, both because of his age when writing the tale and the number of events that can mesh together in wartime. Crisp and humorous, Dahl is able to tell his story while keeping the reader spellbound, injecting passion for his situations on every page while not getting too wordy in his descriptions. A contrast to stories about chocolate-makers, giants, and fresh produce, this story (and its first volume) is not one to be passed over. It is yet another gem in the Roald Dahl collection.

Kudos, Mr. Dahl for this two-volume collection about your life prior to becoming the popular writer for which you are best remembered. I cannot wait to tackle some of your other works, adult- and child-centric alike.

Boy: Tales from Childhood (Autobiography #1), by Roald Dahl

Eight stars

One of the great authors of children’s stories, Roald Dahl entertains readers with this piece that encompasses his life to age twenty. While Dahl clearly states that this piece is not an autobiography (for those sorts of books are filled with stale and dusty tales), this is a fabulous compendium of memories from his early years. The eldest son of two Norwegians, Dahl’s early years were a mixture of pain (he lost his sister and father within a single week) and childhood frivolity (he loved to play with his school chums whenever time permitted). In one vivid memory, Dahl recounts his love of sweets and a shopkeeper who had a hate-on for him, which led young Roald to concoct a plan to exact revenge, which backfired horribly. A child from his father’s second marriage, Dahl remembers riding with his elder half-sister, who got into a serious motor vehicle accident that almost cost him part of his face, Dahl recounts this with as much humour as the event permits. Dahl works hard to recollect those annual summer vacations outside Oslo, where grandparents doted on him and he could not wait for school to let out each summer. However, those glorious thoughts are countered with memories of the strap and horrid matrons patrolling the dorms when he left for boarding school. By the end, Dahl bridges his memories of entering the workforce and the hope that he might pen another short volume to entice readers to continue on with this journey. Like many of his books, the reader is lured into a blissful experience with Dahl’s easy writing and fascinating ideas.

One cannot read Roald Dahl and not feel some connection to the characters that fill the narrative. Although this is a move away from fiction and forces the author to recollect his own life, Dahl is happy to admit he does not remember large portions of life before eight, though his memories flood forward thereafter. While some would think that a man of seventy would have so much to tell, Dahl does not wish to fill pages with dreary recollections, choosing to succinctly tell his early life. I could see some interesting themes in the vignettes Dahl chose to present, which ended up being major children’s stories that I read in my younger years. Dahl’s use of these memories to craft timeless classics, such as The BFG and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, only adds to the greatness of this short book. Told in a highly animated fashion, the reader cannot help but picture the young Roald heading to see that horrid matron or visiting with his beloved Norwegian grandparents while dreaming of sweets on his way home from school in second form. A piece that was so interesting, I am scrambling to get my hands on the second volume, to hear of his wartime memories. A must-read for anyone who has a little while to relax and loves the style Dahl has made famous.

Kudos, Mr. Dahl for all you did in your life. You will always hold a special place in my heart, which is only strengthened after reading this piece.