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Classic Book Collection: Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl is one of the country's best-loved authors and his spellbinding children's books have been popular for decades. But why is it that these stories have enjoyed such phenomenal success? Find out here, as well as where to start if you'd like to read them.
Classic Book Collection: Roald Dahl

The Books

Almost 30 years after his death, Roald Dahl remains one of the world's favourite storytellers. His bestselling children's books include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG and Matilda. Several of his books have been adapted into blockbusting films, and it is estimated that around 200 million copies of his books have been sold worldwide. But what is it that has made Roald Dahl's children's books so popular? We've put together three reasons for his remarkable success...

1. His stories have a mischievous, playful and subversive spirit.

Although good does triumph over evil in Roald Dahl's books, the stories aren't exactly traditionally moralistic as they feature plenty of bad behaviour! In Matilda, the gifted young protagonist is picked on by her cruel parents and her horrible headmistress. Whilst she certainly gets her own back, her methods involve devious pranks and tricks, such as supergluing her father's hat to his head, and tipping a glass of water with a newt in it onto her headmistress's lap. Similarly, in The Twits, the ghastly Mr and Mrs Twit keep monkeys locked up in a cage in their garden. But the monkeys escape and glue the couple's furniture to the ceiling, making them think their house has turned upside-down. The Twits consequently turn themselves upside-down, get their heads stuck to the superglue on the floor, and remain there until they perish. Whilst this is all rather funny, it's also rather grim!

Classic Book Collection: Roald Dahl

In Fantastic Mr Fox, Mr Fox steals chickens and other goods from the three foul farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Admittedly, the farmers are horrible and grouchy and brutal, and as readers, we feel that they're getting their comeuppance... but that doesn't stop the foxes being thieves!

However, it is this wicked blend of mischief, playfulness and breaking the rules that helps to make Dahl's books so compellingly subversive and appealing - despite any moral qualms we might have. Some have questioned the violence and cruelty in the stories, but David Walliams - whose children's books are often compared with Roald Dahl's - writes for The Telegraph: 'Dahl gets away with this because he is funny. The darkness is leavened by humour. The nasty characters are all so buffoonish that we end up laughing at them. And kids love that naughtiness.'

Rather than read another story about traditional concepts of good and evil, children can revel in these rebellious stories that take conventionally bad behaviour and make it funny and good (or at least reasonable, given the circumstances). Anna Leskiewicz writes for The Telegraph: 'Right across his body of work, playfulness and inventiveness are always prized over boring qualities like obedience and deference. In Dahl's world, creative disruption is presented in such an appealing, delicious light, that you can't help but join in the fun.'

Classic Book Collection: Roald Dahl

2. Rewarding tales about tiny heroes taking down big, bad villains.

Roald Dahl's children's books often star a small, underestimated hero who valiantly overcomes a powerful foe. In Matilda, a tiny girl is able to vanquish her big, brutish headmistress by using her extraordinary mind. Similarly, in The BFG, little Sophie and the BFG are able to outwit the nasty, man-eating giants, enlisting the support of the Queen to organise their capture. In The Magic Finger, the young protagonist stops her neighbours from hunting animals by transforming them into duck-like creatures, so they can see for themselves how frightening it is to be threatened by guns!

So typically, more vulnerable characters outmanoeuvre terrible tormenters, who are dealt ruthless punishments. Rather than their physical strength, it is the heroes' superior mental acuity and the ingenious schemes they conjure up that ultimately triumph, which is hugely rewarding for young readers. The far-fetched, funny and fantastical elements of the heroes' clever schemes transport children into a wonderful world of anarchy, retribution, humour and imagination. This makes the reading experience enormously fun, and shows children that even individuals of a small size can have a big impact.

3. Unforgettable illustrations.

Alongside Dahl's witty, fast-paced storytelling are Quentin Blake's iconic illustrations. It is difficult to imagine Roald Dahl's books without these wacky and wonderful images. Beloved characters such as Matilda and the BFG are engagingly captured in Blake's sketchy style, and villains are depicted brilliantly in all their meanness and foulness. These images complement Dahl's exuberant storytelling perfectly and add a huge amount of fun and personality to the books.

Classic Book Collection: Roald Dahl

Where to Start

For younger children aged 5+, The Enormous Crocodile and The Minpins would make a great introduction to Roald Dahl's books. More suitable for younger readers, they're full of fun and plenty of pictures.

For older children and adults, you may wish to start with Roald Dahl's most popular books, which include:

1) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

2) The BFG

3) George's Marvellous Medicine

4) Matilda

5) James and the Giant Peach

You could also read the books in the order they were published. Although he did write other works, his first well-known children's book was James and the Giant Peach (1961), followed by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) and The Magic Finger (1966).

A Brief Biography of Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl was born in September 1916 to Norwegian parents, Harald and Sofie Magdalene Dahl. Roald's first language was Norwegian, which he would speak at home with his sisters - Astri, Alfhild and Else - and his parents. In 1920, when Roald was just 3 years old, his 7-year-old sister Astri tragically died from appendicitis. His father would pass away just weeks later from pneumonia.

Roald attended a boarding school in England, where he became extremely homesick and wrote to his mother every week. Only after his mother died in 1967 did he discover that she'd kept every single one of his letters. From 1929, he attended a different school, where he had an even more miserable time. He had to endure routine cruelty there; younger boys would act as servants for older boys, and pupils would suffer beatings and violence.

Classic Book Collection: Roald Dahl

He was never seen as an especially good writer at school. One English teacher commented in his school report: 'I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended.'

Roald enjoyed a variety of sports and became captain of the squash team. He also had a passion for literature and an interest in photography. Occasionally, the chocolate company Cadbury would send boxes of new chocolates for the pupils to test. This would inspire Roald Dahl's love of and interest in chocolate, leading ultimately to the creation of his much-loved book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964).

After completing his studies, Roald went travelling. He journeyed first to Newfoundland, then - in his position with a petroleum company - to Kenya, and finally to Tanganyika (now Tanzania). In 1939, as World War II loomed, he joined the RAF and became a fighter pilot. In one terrifying incident, he crash-landed in the African desert, fracturing several bones and temporarily going blind.

After the war, Roald married the American actress Patricia Neal in July 1953. The marriage lasted 30 years and they had five children together. In December 1960, their 4-month-old son Theo suffered severe head injuries when he was hit by a cab in New York. This led to Roald's involvement in the development of a medical device, the 'Wade-Dahl-Till' valve, which would be used to successfully treat almost 3,000 children around the world.

In November 1962, Roald Dahl's eldest daughter Olivia died of measles, aged just 7 years old. Roald would go on to dedicate The BFG to Olivia. In 1965, whilst pregnant with their fifth child, Patricia Neal suffered 3 burst aneurysms. Roald helped her re-learn to walk and talk and she even went back to acting. However, the couple divorced in 1983, and Roald married Felicity 'Liccy' Crosland.

Roald Dahl died of a blood disease on 23 November 1990, aged 74. Even today, children continue to put flowers and toys by his grave, and he has left a significant legacy, having inspired millions of children to love reading.