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More Banned Books: Roald Dahl Edition

Pictures of Roald Dahl don't scream giddiness at you

As a child–and an adult, if I’m going to be totally honest–no author has ever given me as much page by page enjoyment as Roald Dahl. He had a talent for the memorable, twisted, and truly bizarre. He understood what makes kids tick, and what creeps adults out, both in his stories and his illustrations.

He also knows just how to push the censor’s buttons. Every year, there is a petition somewhere to get the following two books removed from library shelves.

1. The Witches

No surprises here. If Harry Potter can’t get away from the sensors with its focus on witchcraft and magic, neither can a book titled The Witches. This book is about a kid who accidentally witnesses a bunch of normal women turning into witches during a big convention. He gets turned into a mouse, which leads to a lot of problems and some extremely clever scenes. The book does not exactly have a happy ending–it’s not exactly bad either, but as with many of Dahl’s books, it never quite feels like the heroes won with no strings attached.

The witches want to destroy children just because that’s what they want to do, kind of like how Gargamel was always trying to catch Smurfs, but I never really knew why. These non-cheery themes always make someone out there fuss, but the book always stays on the shelves.

2. James And The Giant Peach

I must have read this book 50 times in elementary school, which was exactly what the banners wanted to avoid. Cited for racism, violence, mystical elements, encouraging bad behavior, revolting language (the Centipede’s song is a true masterpiece of the kind of gross wordplay that kids love).

There are apparently a lot of serious issues in this book that alarm people. I’m not sure that a book about a boy and some bugs sailing through the sky on a giant piece of fruit is cause for all the yowling, but oh well–it’s not going anywhere either.

If you’re an adult and you’ve never read Dahl’s adult work, I highly recommend his short story collection. My personal favorite of his stories is “The Landlady.”

Odd work by an odd man who was an absolute treasure.

Any favorites by master Roald?


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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Julianne Fuchs-Musgrave May 17, 2010, 4:57 am

    “The Swan” I found this in a collection of his stories before I knew who Dahl was. It broke my heart and made me cry, it still does. Thanks for the “Banned” theme. Libraries are on my brain this week more than normal.

    I’m tutoring a child for the county school system who is not able to attend regular classes due to his verbal (explosive) disruptions. So we sit and work quietly in his local branch. Wonderful experience for both of us.

    Secondly, I was asked to recreate a poster I did almost 20 years ago for the Noyes Library For Young Children. It is, in fact, a county library exclusively for young children. It is a small self-contained building that sits in a quiet neighborhood. In the early 1990’s the county government decided it wasn’t valuable. Protests, fund raising (and a wonderful commemorative poster), and a “public-private” partnership saved it. Again the county is looking to close the doors. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/12/AR2010051203115.html And again the efforts are on the move to save it. Including a new poster.
    And yes, in an unobtrusive way, the librarians at Noyes also celebrate “Banned Book Week”

  • Todd May 17, 2010, 6:08 am

    James and the Giant Peach was a staple in our house. My aunt gave it to us just before she passed. My mom would read it to us on long road trips. We’ve continued that tradition with our girls as well.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 17, 2010, 9:25 am

      I bet it’s great on audio. Everyone in my family but me gets carsick if they read in the car, but I’ve got a trip coming up. I’m going to take it.

  • shruti suman May 17, 2010, 6:38 am

    There is something about banned books. that forces you to read them to check whats so critical that it was banned..
    I agree Roald Dahl books are worth reading. His books are so interesting that once you start you cant stop until the book is completed.Its a pity that they get banned.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 17, 2010, 9:25 am

      I agree! Nothing has ever been more magnetic to me than someone saying “no no no.” Luckily, they almost never actually get banned, only challenged.

  • Laurie May 17, 2010, 7:05 am

    The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More. I read this probably 15 years ago or more in front of my folks’ fireplace in the winter home alone. The Swan story was in there, which the first poster notes. The one I think about fairly regularly is the one about a guy who learns to bend space so that he can actually see the cards of the other people at the poker table. As I recall, he practices his mind skills by focusing on a candle flame. Then there’s one about a guy who’s a pick-pocket, I think he calls himself fancy fingers, because he has these really fairy-tale-long fingers. That’s what I remember anyway (although i did google the title of the book to make sure I got it right).

    As usualy, thanks for the great post.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 17, 2010, 9:26 am

      Thanks Laurie. The card story is wonderful. Have you ever read the Sound Machine?

    • Ellie September 13, 2010, 5:22 pm

      I found that book in a charity shop recently and had to buy it immediately, as I’ve always loved his kid’s books and started reading his short stories a couple of years ago. I’ve read every story in it at least twice now, and The Swan really stuck with me too, in fact I had to convince myself to read it the second time as it disturbed me so much the first time! Absolutely amazing as far as I’m concerned

      • Josh Hanagarne September 13, 2010, 5:29 pm

        Absolutely amazing is right! glad you like it. That’s one of my favorites.

  • Pat May 17, 2010, 8:21 am

    James and the Giant Peach is my runaway favorite, Josh. When I taught school, every year I read it to my 3rd and 4th grade students – in a Catholic School. The kids loved it, and so did I. Thinking of Aunt Spiker – and the centipede – still makes me giggle.

    I’m a newby to your blog, and I do enjoy every post. Thanks, Josh.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 17, 2010, 9:27 am

      Thanks Pat. The Centipede is my favorite part of the book. “I’d rather be fried alive and eaten by a Mexican!” The best line, and one that causes a lot of challenges:)

  • ami May 17, 2010, 9:12 am

    I always include Roald Dahl in my list of favorite children’s authors – and so many of his books have been turned into films, it’s strange to think that his work has been censored. One wonders, if the censors and complainers had their way, would children’s books turn into a great pile of marshmallow goo – sweet but not nourishing? (not that there’s anything wrong with the occasional snack of marshmallow goo). I have thought that the thing that bothered Harry Potter critics was not the wizardry per se but the fact that Harry (and some of the other characters) can be terribly disrespectful and mouthy towards adults.

    We loved James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (not to mention the Great Glass Elevator – vermicious knids!) and recently Fantastic Mr. Fox. We need more books that make kids love to read!

    • Josh Hanagarne May 17, 2010, 9:28 am

      Ami, if you could read the challenge documents that people submit, you’d see that the disrespect towards adults barely even enters into the discussion. I’m sure there are exceptions. It’s always the witchcraft, magic, and all-around Satanic madness of the stories that gets people cranky:)

      • ami May 17, 2010, 10:02 am

        that’s interesting Josh. Do you know if C.S. Lewis faced the same type of criticism for his Narnia series (curious b/c Lewis was very public about his Christianity – but his children’s books are filled with witches, magic and all that good (bad) stuff).

  • Janet May 17, 2010, 10:01 am

    Danny Champion of the World is my absolute favourite Roald Dahl. Poaching. Drugging birds with sleeping pills. Underage driving. Evading the police. Lack of appropriate child care. All excellent stuff!

    Thanks Josh – this is a great post. 🙂

    • Hannah September 25, 2012, 6:54 am

      I loved that story. I still own it. 😀

  • Professor Beej May 17, 2010, 10:36 am

    I did my first presentation at an academic conference on Willy Wonka adaptations to film, citing how they each brought out the subsurface villainy in the character and how both of them bring out different elements from the novel. It was a blast. I loved seeing people’s faces when I proved to them that Wonka was a creepy bad guy. 🙂

    I also have the adult works of Dahl on my Kindle wishlist, just waiting for time to come to download them and read them since all I’ve ever read are his children’s stories.

  • Larissa May 17, 2010, 10:46 am

    I am thrilled that you did this post on Roald Dahl. You sparked my memory of The BFG a little while ago when you asked about people’s favorite books. That week I went to the library to check out The BFG to read to my boys and to jog my memory about the book I loved so much growing up. I don’t think I’ve laughed this hard while reading a book to the boys, ever! And there are so many things that I missed as a youngster that now have my in stitches! So now it is my mission to read through many of his books to expose my children to the mastery of Roald Dahl.
    Here is one of the quotes that had the boys staring at me while I was laughing out loud:
    The BFG, “Bonecrunching Giant says Turks is tasting oh ever so much juicier and more scrumdiddlyumptious! Bonecruncher says Turkish human beans has a glamourly flavor. He says Turks from Turkey is tasting of turkey.” ahahahaha!!! 🙂

  • Joy Tanksley May 17, 2010, 12:14 pm

    Josh – I teach “The Landlady” to my 8th graders. It’s such a hit with them. I always time the lesson so that we only get through about the first three quarters and then finish the rest the next day. I always have kids who just can’t stop reading. They stay after class to keep reading or sneak textbooks out of my classroom to finish. Gotta love that.

  • Cait May 17, 2010, 7:08 pm

    “Lamb to the Slaughter” is one of my favorite stories. I also think it would make a great couple’s halloween costume: 1950’s housewife carrying a bloody leg of lamb, accompanied by her clearly-dead-from-a-head-wound husband.

    The dark ending of “Skin” is a classic, too.

    I mostly discovered Dahl as an adult, and have yet to read most of his children’s lit (aside from James, which I read in school).

  • Alisha May 17, 2010, 9:58 pm

    The BFG is one of my son’s absolute favorite books. Although I will say it gets a little tricky to ready aloud because of the BFG’s “accent”.

  • SianU May 18, 2010, 1:09 pm

    Oh the memories! Roald Dahl was my favourite author as a child, especially Matilda, The Witches and the Twits. I enjoyed Boy and Going Solo too. Can’t wait to introduce Roald Dahl to my own children!

  • Daisy May 18, 2010, 5:34 pm

    I loved Matilda. The movie was good, but the book fantastic. My students love the BFG.

  • Genny December 4, 2011, 8:17 pm

    I really love his collection of nursery rhymes turned upside down in “Revolting Rhymes”. I remember discovering different stories in high school theatre arts and I hunted that book down until I found it (I think by that time I was in my early 20’s)! It continues to be the one that I cherish the most.

  • Hannah September 25, 2012, 6:53 am

    Oh, “The Landlady”, I loved that story.
    I bought many of Mr. Dahl’s books when I was younger, but I just stumbled upon that story a month or so ago. He was such an excellent writer; banning his books would truly leave the next generation with a sour taste on their tongue without them even knowing why.

  • The Awesomest L October 5, 2012, 8:31 am

    I love Charlie and he Chocolate Factory!!!!