With World Book Day being celebrated this week, we thought it time to kneel in reverence at the foot of one of the greatest children’s authors of them all, Roald Dahl. All of his books are great (obviously!), but some are just less great than others…
10. Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972)
This was originally intended as the meaty filling in a Charlie trilogy, though sadly the third book, Charlie in the White House, remains incomplete, due to Roald Dahl dying before he could finish it. That’s the thing about death – always gets in the way of a good ending. So, as it stands, Charlie’s saga stalls after a trip to space in a see-through spaceship.
9. The Twits (1980)
Really, this is one for the Roald Dahl completists, existing more as a twisted Jeremy Beadle, fantasy prank show, as Mr and Mrs Twit attempt to sabotage one another’s lives at every turn. That said, cultural significance can be found in Mr Twit’s gargantuan beard and his passion for beer – he’s basically a hipster prototype.
8. Danny, the Champion of the World (1975)
If you’ve read Dahl’s short stories, you’ll know his flights of fancy can take you almost anywhere, from the mundane to the ridiculous. This book straddles those twin worlds, with a simple rural life punctured by an animal trap, when Danny’s dad is out poaching for pheasant. What follows is a strange act of revenge, animal drugging and redemption.
7. George’s Marvellous Medicine (1981)
Certainly his most irresponsible book, this follows one boy’s attempt to poison his granny with his own homemade moonshine – fashioned from curry powder, shampoo, deodorant, gin, antifreeze and other bits you might find on a bog standard Ocado delivery. After drinking the concoction the old bat grows to the size of a house. Kids, do not take note.
6. Fantastic Mr Fox (1970)
One of only two books by Dahl with a talking animal as the main protagonist, this is the gripping tale of a family of foxes attempting to outwit a trio of stupid farmers. Very much painted as a devilish leading man, Mr Fox was ultimately, and fittingly, played by his Royal Highness George Clooney in a subsequent movie. Whisper it, but the film is possibly better than the book.
5. The BFG (1982)
Big Roald Dahl fans will tell you that the “Big Friendly Giant” was first referenced in Danny, the Champion of the World some seven years earlier. A solid outing from Dahl, a little girl called Sophie is essentially kidnapped from an orphanage, but don’t panic, it’s FINE because the 24ft monster who snaffles her is NICE. He even takes her to meet the Queen.
4. Matilda (1988)
Despite a few subsequent outings, you could argue that this was the great man’s last truly excellent book. A fable that values intelligence and learning above all things, Matilda counteracts the crippling emptiness weighed upon her by her neglectful parents by developing telekinetic powers. Basically, it’s a far less horrific and anti-school version of the movie Carrie.
3. The Witches (1983)
It’s a tricky sell, having The Witches so high up on the list, because it’s one that splits the consensus right down the middle. On the one hand, it’s Dahl at his gothic best, a darkly comic tale of a young lad trapped at an international conference of evil women. On the other, there’s a connotation that underneath the make-up and fine clothes, glamourous ladies are all spiky-faced old crones with claws for fingers. It’s been lambasted as misogynistic, but also, subversively, as pro-women. You can make you own mind up on that one, but whatever way, it’s a fantastic read.
2. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)
The fact it’s been the subject of two big Hollywood interpretations is testament to the power of Charlie Bucket’s plight. A poor, kind-hearted lad, living in such squalid conditions that all four grandparents share the same bed while he kips on the floor with his parents, the Chocolate Factory is his way out. His hope for a bright new tomorrow. A fact made all the more poignant and powerful when you find that Dahl had intended for the main character to be black at a time of huge civil unrest. Word has it his cowardly agent put paid to the idea.
1. James and the Giant Peach (1961)
One of his first, and almost definitely his finest (according to this list anyway!). A young lad is sent to live with his cruel and abusive aunties after his parents are killed by an escaped rhino, and after growing a giant peach in the garden (long story), he murders them and goes on a dazzling transatlantic adventure, living inside the impressive stone-fruit with a collection of insects. It’s nail-biting, uplifting, and a triumph of the human spirit. If you only read one, this is it.
Josh Burt is a freelance writer, who lives in South London with his wife Hannah, and his two children Gabriel and Vivienne. Over the last 20 years, he’s written for everyone from FHM to Grazia to The Times and The Telegraph, he’s had two so-so books published, and was once the online voice of Big Brother.