What would children’s literature be like without Roald Dahl’s distinct voice? Over the course of his long career, the British novelist created more than 30 novels filled with bright children and frequently monstrous adults, sprinkled with made-up words, and laced with sly, unexpectedly dark humor. His stories took place in vividly conceived settings ranging from the basement of a strange chocolate factory to the middle of an impossibly large peach — even space.
Dahl is responsible for some of the most memorable characters in children’s literature, from sadistic candymaker Willy Wonka to telekinetic Matilda to the sly, resourceful Fantastic Mr. Fox — many of whom have now been immortalized onscreen as well as on the page — despite his troubling personal politics.
George’s Marvelous Medicine (1981)
George’s grandmother had a puckered smile and pale brown teeth. Her 8-year-old grandson is forced to pour her endless cups of tea and eat bug-infested cabbage. She’s a dreadful person to be around. So George decides to jolt her awake by administering a dosage of medication.
He gleefully combines curry powder, shampoo, antifreeze, and other items he finds lying around the home, but when he gives it to his grandmother, it doesn’t have the desired effect. It causes her to expand to unfathomable proportions. Which, according to George’s father, means George has successfully cured world hunger!
What’s up with that?
That solving-world-hunger element, like the rest of the story’s not-quite-resolution, appears out of nowhere in the end. When you add in the premise’s bitterness, you have one of Dahl’s most inconsistent works. Grady, Constance
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972)
When it came to bitterness, there was plenty of it in the sequel to Dahl’s most renowned and beloved work. Moving the action as far away from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory as possible, Dahl places his heroes, Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka, in a huge glass elevator for what amounts to an epic road (space) trip with Charlie’s entire family, complete with all the long-awaited “are we there yet?” moments that such a description implies.
However, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator includes caustic, highly clichéd diatribes against US politics, including a strangely infantilized look at the US president. At the start of this novel, Charlie’s two beloved grandmothers from the previous one are abruptly changed into horrible, demonic specimens of every superficial human flaw Dahl can think of. You’re cheering for the aliens to triumph by the time the Vermicious Knids arrive, hoping Charlie was still mooning by the chocolate river. What was going through Dahl’s mind? —Romano, Aja
Revolting Rhymes (1982)
Revolting Rhymes is a compilation of rhyming poetry that isn’t your normal Dahl book. However, the author’s singsong retellings of six well-known fairy tales — complete with all the hideous aspects Disney left out — serve as an excellent showcase for his twisted sense of humour. This makes logical, given how much Dahl’s writings already borrow from fairy-tale themes; nearly all of his children’s novels feature abandoned children, malevolent hags, and/or impossible-to-believe magical beings.
Still, in Revolting Rhymes, Dahl takes fairy tales to a new level, turning Cinderella’s romance into a slaughter, turning Little Red Riding Hood into a stone-cold killer, and enslaving Snow White with seven gambling-addict dwarfs. Revolting Rhymes, like all of Dahl’s best work, is weird and even scary at times, but also a lot of fun. Caroline Framke (Caroline Framke)
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More (1977)
The Henry Sugar anthology is an unusual book to read in the middle of a Roald Dahl binge, but it’s always been a favorite of mine. In a word, it’s variable: There are small short stories, such as the forgettable one about the enormous tortoise (no, not Esio Trot, the other one), as well as autobiographical portrayals of Dahl’s life, such as how his service as a fighter pilot in World War II inspired him to begin writing.
The title story, however, is the book’s crown jewel: the narrative of Henry Sugar, a self-centered gambler who learns to see through solid objects in order to cheat at cards and eventually turns into a secular saint. It has all of the beauty and heart of Dahl’s best full-length works, but it’s tinted with a certain melancholy. Grady, Constance
Fantastic Mr. Fox (1968)
In Fantastic Mr. Fox, the only novel on this list narrated from the perspective of a (especially brilliant) bunch of animals, Dahl takes a break from sympathizing with humans. Mr. Fox, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of hero Dahl adores: he’s always the smartest fox in the room. The conflict between the Fox family and three greedy farmers is rich in detail, layered with tidbits covering everything from Farmer Bean’s alcoholic cider addiction to the elaborate dinner party courses Mrs. Fox prepares with the spoils that her fantastic husband triumphantly steals from beneath the farmers’ noses. Caroline Framke (Caroline Framke)
The Witches (1983)
The Witches is a terrifying horror film about a little kid who finds himself in the heart of a worldwide gathering of malevolent women. Fortunately, he has a wise grandma who has raised him to be as witch-proof as any lad can be.
Dahl’s witches lurk in everyday society, waiting to prey on innocent youngsters, with their exquisite white gloves and long, pointed shoes covering horrible bodies. The Witches don’t so much as skywrite “women aren’t what they seem!” as they do with open misogyny. However, Dahl’s witches are captivating, fascinating, and powerful — and it is their power that ultimately flips a simple cautionary tale completely on its head, culminating in one of his most unforgettable books. This fable of mice and (wo)men is warm, amusing, and spine-tingling all at the same time; I reread it every Halloween and am pleasantly scared out each time. —Romano, Aja
Danny, Champion of the World (1975)
Dahl is a master at describing fantastical environments, yet the majority of them aren’t places you’d want to live in: You’d almost certainly be maimed in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, you’d be attacked by violent farmers in Mr. Fox’s den, and the BFG’s native land is home to a slew of bigger, less friendly giants.
No, if you forced me to live in a Dahl novel, I’d select Danny. I’d like to spend some time in Danny’s father’s snug caravan, which is softly pummeled by an apple tree, and eat roast pheasant (the meal of kings, according to Danny’s father). I’d like to learn top-secret poaching techniques and how to produce pheasant bait using plump raisins in water. Dahl never created a world that made you want to crawl inside and curl up there as much as this one did. Grady, Constance
James and the Giant Peach (1961)
James and the Giant Peach is an amazingly wonderful story for a book that begins with a tiny kid battling under the despotic authority of his violent aunts — a straight-up Dickensian dilemma. The mysterious creatures that first grow the titular peach to mammoth size, the jolly centipede causing constant mischief with his 100 (or maybe just 42) shoes, and the short-fused giants that James and his magical new insect friends meet when their swollen stone fruit floats up into the sky all contribute to an overarching sense of wonder. But it’s James’s huge heart, not the giant peach, that keeps this book moving — and why it continues to resonate so strongly. Caroline Framke (Caroline Framke)
If you were a Dahl fan as a kid, you were probably a bookish kid with a vivid imagination. And what more magnificent ideal existed for all of us bookish, imaginative youngsters than the notion that our minds might do miracles even in the world beyond our heads?
Although Matilda’s telekinesis may appear to be in keeping with today’s never-ending stream of superhero films, Dahl’s 1988 novel extols the merits of intellectual power over superpowers. Matilda is an exciting tale of intelligence and cunning triumphing over TV-induced stupidity, a love hymn to great novels, and an entirely satisfying tale of a child serving a bit of justice to grown-ups for the small and major indignities that come with being a child. In addition, despite Bruce Bogtrotter’s terrible fate, it always makes me crave chocolate cake. Tanya Pai (@TanyaPai)