Roald Dahl: War hero, dashing rogue, children’s writer
Apparently it doesn’t take an act of Congress or a presidential decree to name an entire month after a famous author. All that’s required is a press release from his publisher, in this case Penguin, which has been celebrating Roald Dahl Month for three years now, with few noticing outside of libraries and the children’s sections of bookstores.
I’ll admit this kind of thing would doubtless rile up my indignation (Who do they think they are?!) if it were, say, “Dan Brown Month,” or “R.L. Stine Month,” but since it’s a writer I’ve long read with pleasure and admiration, I think I’ll climb on the bandwagon instead.
Even though I’ve made my living as a literary journalist for more than two decades, I was unaware of Roald Dahl Month until last week, when I wandered into the Franklin County Public Library in downtown Rocky Mount, Va. (Yes, I visit bookstores and libraries on vacation), and spied a poster listing all kinds of related events.
Sunday, it turns out, is the 93rd birthday of the beloved Welsh writer, who died in 1990. He is well remembered as the author of such children’s classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, Matilda, to name but a few. And this year’s celebration is more important, publicity-wise, with the animated film adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox, directed by Wes Anderson and featuring the vocal talents of Meryl Streep, George Clooney and Bill Murray, due out Nov. 25.
In fairness to Penguin, the company has striven to do good on the way to doing well with Dahl’s backlist, providing all manner of classroom and library aids at a way-cool website, roalddahl.com., where you can also find a detailed Dahl biography, hear a wonderful taped interview with the author (who died in 1990), and view vintage photographs from throughout Dahl’s colorful life.
The success of Dahl’s children’s books overshadows his prolific production as a writer of blackly comic horror stories for adults, several of which have been adapted for film and television, including the Quentin Tarantino segment of the 1995 film Four Rooms. He won the Edgar Award three times. He also wrote a number of nonfiction books, among them Boy: Tales of Childhood, an immensely charming account of his life to age 20.
Indeed, Dahl was an unlikely children’s writer, as reflected in the sometimes controversial tone and subject matter of his books. Needless to say, what alarms parents and librarians is also what endears him to children. As Rufus Pearce, a 26-year-old fan, told Wales Online, ““I love Roald Dahl because his books can be quite grotesque, almost macabre, whilst still being humorous and funny and the Quentin Blake illustrations make them unlike any other.”
Born Sept. 13, 1916 to Norwegian parents living in Wales, Dahl was a bona fide World War II hero, seeing much combat as an RAF pilot over Greece and North Africa, where he almost died in a crash in 1940. Midway through the war he was assigned to Washington as RAF air attache. He later claimed he was a secret agent for MI-6, assigned to promote British interests in the American war effort–a story confirmed last year in Jennet Conant’s excellent popular history, The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington.
I could go on about his fascinating and sometimes prickly writer:
At 6 feet 6 inches tall, Dahl was handsome and dashing, and much in demand among D.C. society ladies.
Though he kept a diary from age 8, Dahl became a writer by accident. The novelist C.S. Forester, writing propaganda for the British Information Service, asked the war hero to type up notes of his crash for a story Forester planned to write. But when he received Dahl’s notes, Forester printed them without change. The story sold to The Saturday Evening Post for $900, a sum that deeply impressed Dahl and inspired him to become a professional writer.
Dahl married the American actress Patricia Neal, and after she suffered a debilitating stroke in 1965 while pregnant with their fifth child, he supervised a grueling at-home rehab schedule that eventually restored her ability to speak and walk. They were divorced in 1983, after Neal learned of his affair with a younger woman.
For what’s it’s worth, my favorite Dahl book is Danny, the Champion of the World, but then I didn’t come to read his work until I was the father of young children. Really, if you’re unfamiliar with his work, start anywhere. You’ll be glad you did.