Saturday, March 10, 2007

Reading. Dahl.

When I was in third or fourth grade our teacher would read Roald Dahl aloud to us as we sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor; I remember the tingly feeling from my feet going numb, the roughness of the carpet against my palms. And I remember entering Roald Dahl's world of friendly (and not-so-friendly) giants, of witches and poachers and animals adept at evading the aforementioned poachers, of small children who managed to outwit the grownups with their cleverness. Now I am nearly twenty years older than the first time I read Matilda, and I still revisit it now and again; I think it is my favorite of all of Dahl's books, not least because I feel a kinship with the five-and-a-half-year-old Matilda, who loves books.

I was not nearly as precocious as Matilda, but according to my mother I used to read the Sears catalogue when I was three, moving rapidly onto cereal boxes and ice-cream cartons. Unlike Matilda I was encouraged to read by my parents; when we packed up our home two months ago I found a box of learning-to-read booklets, their pages glittering with stick-on stars for every sentence I mastered. If I close my eyes I can remember sitting on floor of my mother's study/sewing room going over that week's lesson. It was clear from very early on that I would be a reader. (As I grew older my shelves would be filled with children's classic versions of Pride and Prejudice, Anne of Green Gables, The Wind in the Willows, and so forth, all illustrated with color plates and neatly covered in plastic jackets which have since been lost, although the books remain).

Treated by her parents as though she was a scab for whom they "looked forward enormously to the time when they could pick their little daughter off and flick her away, preferably into the next county or even further than that," Matilda makes her own way to the library where the helpful Mrs. Phelps introduces her to Dickens and Austen and Brönte and all the other classics which every small child should read before they enter kindergarten. (Kidding. Kidding!). We are introduced to Matilda's parents, a crooked used-car dealer and a bleached-blonde bingo-player, neither of them who had any interest in literature at all, on whom Matilda plays tricks as revenge for treating her as though she was ignorant and stupid when she was quite the opposite. There are a few hilarious victories as the clever little girl scores points against her idiotic parents, but then it is time for her to go to school, and then the real fun begins.

At school Matilda becomes friends with Lavendar, and they meet the lovely Miss Honey, their teacher, as well as the terrifying Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress, and as we find out later, Miss Honey's aunt. Miss Trunchbull is a bully who goes about torturing any hapless child who crosses her path, until Matilda finds a way to stop her. And stop her she does. This is what I love about Roald Dahl, how he sees children as people who are smart and funny and see through the grown-ups that think they know everything. There is something wonderful about the glee with which he writes of the bad-guy's comeuppance, how good triumphs over evil. I come back to his stories again and again, even now that I am all grown-up and my mind has turned to other writers for many years now, cheering on his small heroes in their feats of glory.

Dahl, Roald. Matilda. Puffin Books, 1988. p10.

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