Hello dear readers! It’s that time yet again to cast a look back at previous awesome things I have loved. This week, it’s the turn of Roald Dahl book, Matilda (with special mentions for the film and play as well)
As mentioned in my list of 10 Gateway Books, I was an avid reader of Roald Dahl when I was a kid. At first, my Dad was the nominated reader of these stories to me, but soon I could read them by myself and was awestruck at Wonka’s Chocolate Factory with Charlie, hid from giants with Sophie and the BFG, travelled in a giant peach with James and most of all, loved the magical power of books with Matilda.
Matilda is one of Dahl’s most famous books and has been turned into both a successful film and musical. I think it appeals to so many people (including myself!) becuase this is a story about a brave, intelligent and funny heroine for bookish children (who are most likely to be the ones reading the book in the first place). While there are lots of inspiring heroes and heroines in children’s literature, there aren’t quite as many who gain all their power and strength from reading. Just reading.
As is the case in all Dahl novels, there must be some truly nasty adversaries for our heroine to contend with. In this case, Matilda’s own parents. The book opens with Dahl ruminating on what actual, truthful school reports would sound like and how many people spoil their children, making them totally useless for the rest of the world. (As an adult, I think of Dahl’s books and come to the conclusion that there must have been a lot of people he didn’t like very much, as his attitude towards people in general is so scathing in his stories). As he does this, immediately, as a reader and as a kid, you feel special. ‘He’s telling me this because CLEARLY, I’m not like that at all. I’m a different sort of person’. After explaining the failings of parents who over-indulge their children, he proceeds to tell us about the most wilfully neglectful parents probably ever committed to children’s literature: the Wormwoods.
To a child, the Wormwoods are sort of funny. You can see that they are ridiculous in every sense and instead of feeling scared when they did something cruel to Matilda, I felt angry and indignant. I delighted in their punishments and eagerly waited to see what new ways she would find to get back at them. As an adult, this whole set up is far more disturbing. The Wormwoods are clearly monstrous people – Dahl highlighting their insistence on their own ignorance as being a major flaw – and the idea of a small, six year old child having to enact punishment on her own parents in order to feel there was balance in the world is terrifying.
BUT, scary though Matilda’s situation is (and we’ll get to the fear factor that is Miss Trunchbull shortly) it is also empowering. I (thankfully!) grew up in a home nothing like Matilda’s. My need to feel powerful came from being a little odd, a little geeky and appearing somewhat weak and useless to my peers. Of course, I didn’t understand that I needed to embrace these things as a child, but I remember the relief at finding a story about a girl like me, one who was small and loved to read books, who took charge of her own destiny, made magic happen and got justice for Miss Honey.
Ever since I can remember, Matilda has been one of my favourite books. I even used it for a presentation on the confusion of self and narrative, and how readers identify with protagonists, while at university. (That’s right; I can talk about smart stuff occasionally). Because I identified with Matilda, you see. She raced through books (so did I), she was good at school (so was I) and she had a powerful imagination (as did I). I wholeheartedly believed in her and her powers, to the extent that I thought perhaps they could be learnt and spent a solid 10 minutes one summer holiday afternoon unsuccessfully trying to move some chalk, like Matilda does in the book (true story).
I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how important identifiable heroes can be for children, especially for those of us that felt a little off-kilter while growing up. Kids all over the world saw in that story that reading was a good thing. A great thing, in fact; that it gave you power and knowledge. You saw that standing up to bullies was scary and hard, but something you should try to do. Miss Honey never stood up to Miss Trunchbull and lived in fear even as an adult. Matilda had been (secretly) standing up to her parents for years, knew that it could be done and showed a grown-up how to be brave.
And yikes, Miss Trunchbull! Was there ever an authority figure more intimidating? As a kid, I was shocked at the idea there could be a teacher so horrible, as when you’re in primary school, basically everyone is Miss Honey. As an adult, I think it was pretty smart of Dahl to instil both a reverence for learning and the idea the adults are fallible too. Mrs Phelps the librarian and Miss Honey are shown to be caring, wise adults (if still requiring a little Matilda-guidance) and Miss Trunchbull and the Wormwoods as fools in desperate need of schooling. I’m not sure that it’s a bad thing for children to know at an early age that grown-ups can be wrong sometimes.
To my utter delight, during the part of my childhood while I was still under 10, Matilda was turned into a film. While still a bit too Americanised for us Brits that had grown up on Dahl’s works, I think Danny DeVito (director and screenwriter – and Mr Wormwood) did a great job of translating the eccentricities of Dahl’s work to the film. It was funny and silly and really exciting to see my favourite book come to life on screen. Best of all, our onscreen Matilda really did grow up to be a smart, interesting and literary adult (former child actress Mara Wilson, whose brilliant blog can be found here) just as we all knew her book twin would have done.
EVEN BETTER, Matilda has been reimagined for a new generation in the form of a musical: ta da!
With the RSC behind it and Tim Minchin crafting the songs, Matilda the Musical is a silly, biting, smart and sometimes scary production that was out of this world good. I have been to theatres in which many of the audience were children several times and I have never seen an audience as rapt with attention as I did at Matilda. It was – cheesy though it sounds – magical.
This book was of massive importance to me as a kid and has no doubt shaped the sort of bookish adult I have grown up to become. So thanks, to Roald Dahl for giving us a heroine like Matilda, from nerdy children everywhere.
And now the question to you, readers: What was your favourite childhood book?