On 13th September we celebrated Roald Dahl Day to honour of one of the greatest children’s authors in the world. Whether you favour Fantastic Mr Fox or have a soft spot for The BFG, there’s no denying Roald Dahl’s unique and colourful style changed children’s literature forever. Read on chiddlers and groan-ups as we take you on a journey to discover the A to Z of Roald Dahl…….
A is for Amundsen
Roald always seemed like a funny name for a British author to have, but baby Roald was named for polar explorer Roald Amundsen, a national hero in Norway at the time, where Roald’s parents were from. It’s been said that the family, including Roald’s sisters Astri, Alfhild and Else, spoke Norwegian at home, and Roald mentions Norway in many of his books, most notably The Witches, where the main character goes to live with his Norwegian grandmother.
B is for books
The writer, who lived until he was 74, wrote 17 children’s novels and 20 books for children in his lifetime. In total, he published 48 books not including published screenplays and plays. Since his death in 1990, many treasuries, collected works and books have also published by his estate.
C is for Cardiff
Roald was born on September 13, 1916 in Villa Marie, Fairwater Road in Llandaff, Cardiff, to Harald Dahl and Sofie Magdalene Dahl. Harald had emigrated to the UK from Sarpsborg, Norway in the 1880 and married Sophie in 1911. Sadly when Roald was three, his father died of pneumonia, and his sister Astri, died from appendicitis at the age of seven.
D is for 007
It’s a long way from children’s fiction to spy movies, but Roald traversed the pair, penning the script to 1967’s Bond film You Only Live Twice starring Sean Connery. In another Fleming crossover, Roald wrote the screenplay for the Bond author’s book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and invented one of the scariest-ever kids’ villains – the Childcatcher.
E is for Earthworm
The slimy creepy crawly turns up in 1961 in Roald’s first famous book for children, James and the Giant Peach. A morose creature who James Henry Potter meets on the giant peach, he’s “only happy when he’s gloomy”, but in his own words: “‘I am not a slimy beast,’ the Earthworm said. ‘I am a useful and much loved creature. Ask any gardener you like.’” The 1996 film version of James and the Giant Peach featured the voice of David Thewlis as the Earthworm.
F is for ‘Formula 86’
This weird-sounding concoction is a magic potion meant to turn the drinker into a mouse at a specific time with a single drop in The Witches. The plot of the eponymous protagonists is to get rid of every child in England. Published in 1983, it has its roots in Roald’s childhood summers spent in Norway, where he was inspired by bedtime stories of witches and magic.
G is for grown-up writing
Roald wasn’t just penning magical verse and nonsensical rhymes for children, he also has some proper adult work, including writing for Playboy magazine.
H is for HB pencils
When Roald passed away from a blood disease on November 23, 1990, it’s said he had made some pretty unusual stipulations for his burial. These included being laid to rest with his favourite things, so as per his request he was buried with snooker cues, a bottle of Burgundy, chocolate, HB pencils and a power saw.
I is for invention
It wasn’t all about creating unbelievable worlds and characters. In 1962, his son Theo developed hydrocephalus after being struck by a car. Roald worked with hydraulic engineer Stanley Wade and neurosurgeon Kenneth Till to invent the Wade-Dahl-Till valve, which allowed fluid to be drained from a child’s brain.
J is jotting
As his back catalogue would suggest, Roald was prolific, but he was always thinking about his next work, jotting down ideas in notebooks. He had a hut built in his garden at Great Missenden in Bucks, where nobody else was allowed and that’s where he did all his writing. He referred to it as his ‘womb’ and ‘nest’.
K is for Kranky, as in George
“He may have been only eight years old but he was a brave little boy. He was going to take this old woman on” – so goes George’s Marvellous Medicine, Roald’s much loved 1981 book. George is the only son of Mr and Mrs Kranky who lives with his parents and his miserable old Grandma, who scares him with terrifying tall tales – until he decides to mix her a medicine she’ll never forget.
L is for Ladderless Window-Cleaning Company
In The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, Billy discovers a trio of new friends living in old wooden house. For who needs a ladder when you have a giraffe? Perfectly pitched for youngsters and filled with glorious Quentin Blake illustrations (more on him later), it’s another of Roald’s marvellous worlds.
M is for Matilda
The young girl with a very powerful mind has been a children’s stalwart since publication in 1988, but she’s become even more pertinent with the variety of filmic iterations to hit the big screen. More recently, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical has been playing to packed houses at London’s Cambridge Theatre and also at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway.
N is for new writer
While in Washington DC, Roald met with author CS Forester, who encouraged him to start writing. Dahl published his first short story in the Saturday Evening Post. He went on to write stories and articles for other magazines, including The New Yorker. He described his foray into writing as a “pure fluke”. According to Roald’s autobiographical Lucky Break, Forester asked Dahl about his experiences as a fighter pilot. This prompted Roald to write his first story, A Piece of Cake, in 1942. That same year, Roald wrote his first story for children, The Gremlins, for Walt Disney, but when it wasn’t terribly successful, he went back to writing macabre and mysterious stories geared toward adult readers.
O is for Oompa-Loompas
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Heck no, it’s 50 skydiving Oompa-Loompas! To celebrate 50 Whipple-Scrumptious years of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, the Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity recruited 50 fearless fundraisers to make history by dressing up as Oompa-Loompas and skydiving from 13,000ft.
P is for Pratchett, as in Mrs
When Roald was attending The Cathedral School, Llandaff, at the age of eight, he and four of his friends were caned by the headmaster after putting a dead mouse in a jar of gobstoppers at the local sweet shop. It was a punishment for the “mean and loathsome” old woman in the shop, Mrs Pratchett, and was known among the five boys as the ‘Great Mouse Plot of 1924’. It was to be immortalised forever in Boy, Roald’s autobiographical book published in 1984. He then went to boarding school in England – St Peter’s in Weston-super-Mare and latterly Repton School in Derbyshire – and wasn’t terribly happy, but his experiences came to inspire many of his later works.
Q is for Quentins
The wondrous writing of Roald has long since been intertwined with the otherworldly illustrations of Quentin Blake which still embody many of our ideas of what Roald’s characters looked like. The other Quentin, director Tarantino, adapted one of Roald’s best-known adult short stories, Man from the South, as the final segment in his 1995 film anthology Four Rooms.
R is for Royal Air Force
After finishing school in August 1934, Roald crossed the Atlantic on the RMS Nova Scotia and hiked through Newfoundland before joining the Shell Petroleum Company. He trained for two years in the UK and then transferred to Mombasa in Kenya before heading to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, but in 1939, as World War II loomed, he joined the RAF as an aircraftman. He saw plenty of action in service, once fracturing his skull and losing his sight in a crash landing, but he luckily made a full recovery.
S is for spies
In 1942, the fledgling writer worked in Washington DC in a diplomatic role, but during the war he was recruited by the spymaster, William Stephenson. He provided MI6 with intelligence from Washington, working alongside Ian Fleming – the aforementioned creator of James Bond – and others, before leaving the Royal Air Force in 1946.
T is for Twits
It’s said that even in real life, Roald was very suspicious of men with beards, believing they must be hiding something sinister. The Twits, focussing on Mr and Mrs Twit and their disgusting way of life, makes much of the fact that Mr Twit has a beard which is dirty and has bits of food clinging to it. Quentin Blake’s illustrations in the original story show cornflakes, tinned sardines and even stilton cheese stuck in the bristles on Mr Twit’s face.
U is for Unexpected, as in Tale of the Unexpected
Starting life as short stories, these latterly became a TV series, Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected between 1979 and 1988. Each episode told a story, often with sinister and wryly comedic undertones, with an unexpected twist ending.
V is for vermicious knids
While Roald could do magic and mischief, he could also do scary and grim, and so came this species of amorphous shape-shifting aliens. Legions of them invade the Space Hotel USA and consume many of the crew in the sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, named Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. They are also mentioned in James and the Giant Peach.
W is for Willy Wonka
As if it needs any explanation – the story of Charlie Bucket, Golden Tickets, Oompa-Loompas and the amazing Mr Willy Wonka is firmly embedded in our culture, having twice been reimagined for the cinema, as an opera and, since 2013, a hit West End musical. Conservative estimates suggest the original book has sold over 20 million copies worldwide – it is available in 55 languages. It is said to have been inspired by Roald’s time at Repton when Cadbury, the chocolate company, would send boxes of new chocolates to the school to be tested by the pupils. Dahl apparently used to dream of inventing a new chocolate bar that would win the praise of Mr Cadbury himself. Sadly he wasn’t a fan of the 1971 film.
X is for X-ray
In The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, first published in 1977, Roald Dahl set out to create a collection of short stories for older children. The title story, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, is the longest in the collection, and tells the story of a man who uses meditation techniques to hone an almost X-ray vision, being able to see through all manner of things, including playing cards.
Y is for yellow
The author was very particular about his writing methods – he always wrote in his beloved HB pencil on American yellow legal pads, which were sent to him from New York. It’s said that once a month, when his large wastepaper basket was full to overflowing from aborted ideas, he made a bonfire just outside his writing hut where one of the walls became streaked black with soot.
Z is for Zozimus
The material that dreams are made of in the BFG. For many, the most magical and fantastical of all Roald’s stories, 1982’s The BFG – short for “Big Friendly Giant” – featured a giant who blew dreams made of zozimus into children’s rooms at night. When a little girl called Sophie, named after Roald’s granddaughter, sees the BFG, he reaches through the window, and carries her to his home in Giant Country, where they meet other giants who are also fond of ‘human beans’, only for snacking. One of Roald’s linguistic triumphs, the book is full of snozzcumbers, frobscottle and gobblefunk. The BFG also features in 1975’s Danny, Champion of the World. In 1989, The BFG was adapted for a TV movie, with David Jason voicing the Big Friendly Giant. A new film version of the story directed by Steven Spielberg is planned for release in 2016.