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Dahwdling with Dahl

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The flurry of excitement over the recent remake of Roald Dahl's classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory , has spurred interest in the author himself. Margaret Talbot's excellent article in the July 11/18 New Yorker, "The Candy Man: Why children love Roald Dahl's stories-and many adults don't" deals with the troublesome enduring popularity for these very prickly, very bizarre books. Talbot is a staunch Dahlian herself, and it was a relief to Laist to see Dahl's detractors rebutted with her sharp conclusion that "Dahl’s purse-lipped critics fail to recognize that his stories don’t merely indulge a child’s fantasies—they replenish them." Apparently encouraging the wildest fantasies and revenge dreams of children isn't entirely popular among moms, dads, or adults at large. According to Talbot, two of our favorite children's book writers, whose stories are not devoid of sharp edges themselves - Eleanor Cameron and Ursula K. LeGuin - both had serious problems with the nastiness and the violence of Dahl's worldview. Children, on the other hand, seem to love it. And so do we.

What is it about Dahl that makes him so difficult for some and so rewarding for others? We think it's that he pushes every possibility forward - not just what if, but what happened after that, and after that. In a world where so many great ideas and dreams are cut short, Dahl sees all of them - the good, the bad, and the squiffish - to their most extreme ends. If you're a child, a child at heart, or just an angry, bitter, dreaming adult like us here at Laist, you'll adore Dahl on a reread. We thought we'd recommend a couple of neglected Dahl classics for your summer reading. As usual, all these titles are available at Children's Book World, the best Los Angeles bookstore for young adult literature.

Danny, The Champion Of The World
This is and has been our favorite Dahl book for years, and we surprise ourselves by saying it, because this book comes the closest to being an ordinary story about ordinary people. More tender than even Charlie, more believable than James, and more human than George, Matilda, and Dahl's other superhero children, Danny is just an ordinary boy who loves his father and the wild adventures they get into together. Dahl never shies away from an opportunity to poke fun at the aristocracy. In this book, more than any others, the writing moves away from the fantastic and into the realm of James Herriot and other British children's-book writers who love the countryside and animals, hate aristocrats and snobs, and will do anything for a laugh. Danny and his dad go through a series of elaborate stratagems to poach the pheasants of a local lord - everything from raisins pierced with horsehair to sleeping pills and smuggling drugged pheasants under a sleeping baby in a baby carriage. The fun is riotous and the love is real. This is the one Dahl story where the beloved adult friend isn't a giant, a witch, a grandmother or some other mythical beast - it's just Dad. If your father ever got you into shenanigans that your mother disapproved of, or if you ever wanted to steal pheasants by moonlight, this is your book.

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The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More
We read this one when we were eight and it scared us sleepless, but we read it just as eagerly the next day. This series of short stories goes from a card sharp who renounces excess and devotes himself to meditation to be able to see through cards and win millions, to a giant turtle beached and abused by humans till a young boy runs away with him, to a young boy tormented by bullies. Henry Sugar brings out the Arthur Conan Doyle in Dahl. Crime, money, and violence is the center of these stories, whether it's a professional "fingersmith" who can steal the shoelaces off your shoes, or gamblers, or an ordinary man finding a cache of ancient silver. More adult in thematic material than some of Dahl's other work, if you think it's all about candy and giant peaches, you owe it to yourself -and the hairs on the back of your neck - to sit down with Henry Sugar.

Boy: Tales of Childhood
It's no surprise to read in Roald Dahl's autobiography that childhood is the part of his life he remembers most vividly, or that many of the obsessions and grievances his child heroes have - being whipped at school, loving candy, and getting into trouble - were his own when he was young. The pages and pages on British boarding-school ritualized abuse strip the Wodehouse-coloured (note the u) cloak from those institutions. Dahl manages to be funny even when talking about his war injuries and his early heartbreaks. The problem with Boy is its pacing - the end isn't nearly as good as the beginning, and we always get the feeling that Dahl loses some interest in the story the older he gets. But this ice-cold, daguerreotype-sharp glimpse into the early years of Dahl is a must for any fan.