I was teaching an MA seminar on children’s literature when a rather severe Latvian student dived into a discussion about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by stating: “Roald Dahl – no literary merit whatsoever.” Immediately, a young London primary school teacher retorted with stories of how the children in her class, many of whom wouldn’t read of their own accord, loved Dahl’s books, roaring with laughter and amazement as she read them out loud. The Latvian woman didn’t change her expression at all, and repeated: “Roald Dahl – no literary merit whatsoever.”
I’m too old to have read him as a child, so my encounters with both his life and his work have been as a parent. I’m of the view that what we call children’s books are interventions in society’s debate about bringing up children, and Dahl entered this debate through literature with passion and commitment. The result was that he was one of the first writers who can be read and enjoyed by children to show us adults in familiar, everyday situations failing spectacularly, grotesquely and exaggeratedly in this job of nurture.
Roald Dahl: my hero. I love Dahl’s books myself, of course, but I am most grateful to him because one summer when our family was in England, and my seven-year-old son Wesley was deprived of his usual sources of entertainment, he discovered Roald Dahl and devoured every one of his books with passionate delight. Headed for the toilet late at night in the Oxford college where we were staying, I’d see the light coming from under Wes’s door and would have to order him to go to sleep. Thank you, Roald Dahl. Your literary merit is considerable.