By: Animesh Roy

Dahl's dark side

In honour of the novelist responsible for such classic works of children’s literature as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG, a crowd of parents and children of all ages filled the Gladstone Hotel’s ballroom this past Sunday for the second annual Roald Dahl Day. Marking the 50th anniversary of his novel, James and the Giant Peach, children’s literary workshop Small Print Toronto organized the celebration, which featured a screening of Tim Burton’s adaptation of the popular book among other events.

“Roald Dahl continues to inspire many young writers to this very day,” says Natalie Kertes, project director at Small Print Toronto. “James and the Giant Peach exemplifies his writing so well that we felt its 50th anniversary was the perfect occasion to celebrate his work.”

Dahl’s distinct writing style, unique for its erratic spelling and unusual adjectives, has intrigued children ever since the publication of his first novel, Gremlins, in 1943.

Lesser known, however, are Dahl’s grisly short stories for adults. Although the children at Toronto Roald Dahl Day hadn’t read these stories, many of their parents in attendance were well familiar with them. “I enjoy his adult work,” said Linda, mother of 9 year old Keton, who placed fourth in the event’s writing contest. “More than anything, I think it shows how versatile the man was.” When asked if she would mind Keton reading Dahl’s adult books at such an early age, Linda replied, “No young child should read his adult works. I think they are well written, but a child needs to reach a certain age before they can appreciate it.”

The event’s overwhelming emphasis on the Dahl’s children’s literature is not at all surprising considering both its popularity and the far more mature content of his adult works. His 1953 short story Lamb to the Slaughter, for example, involved the murder of a police detective bludgeoned to death by his wife with the evening’s frozen leg of lamb. Skin, another short story of his, only subtly implies the protagonist’s gruesome end, having his back skinned by an art dealer with the promises of riches for a priceless tattoo.

The stark contrast between his work for children and adults is obvious, and has occasionally cast a negative light on him. Upon Roald Dahl’s death, Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak commented, “The cruelty in his books is off-putting; [he was a] scary guy. I know he’s very popular, but what’s nice about this guy? He’s dead, that’s what’s nice about him.”

Even Dahl’s children’s work isn’t free of its author’s dark undertone. Novels such as The Witches, Matilda, and George’s Marvellous Medicine all contain black humour that borders on the sadistic.

Roald Dahl, whose life itself has made for an interesting read, undoubtedly had an imagination like no other. He applied this imagination in its full capacity to craft stories that have entertained and inspired several generations. While in his children’s books his writing had a certain restrained quality, almost as though the author was censoring himself, certainly this was far from the case in his work for adults.

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