“I was glad my father was an eye-smiler. It meant he never gave me a fake smile because it’s impossible to make your eyes twinkle if you aren’t feeling twinkly yourself.”
Danny The Champion of The World – Roald Dahl
I read a lot of books when I was a child, indeed it is a constant disappointment to me that I don’t read more now that I am an adult with far more capability to understand the nuances in a finely crafted novel. However, as a child I ate books. Well not really. I never actually swallowed a book (or even a tiny corner of page) despite preferring to read than to eat. The Borrowers, Little House on the Prairie, Teddy Robinson, Malory Towers (oh, how I longed to become a boarder and have a midnight dorm feast), The Secret Garden, Goodnight Mister Tom (the first book to move me to tears), Pippi Longstocking, Ballet Shoes, The Famous Five… and on the list goes…
Consequently when I became a mother I knew that the one thing I would be able to do was help my children read. I don’t mean just help with the nuts and bolts of reading, the sounding out of the phonics and stuff, I mean really learn to read. To discover worlds far beyond our own experiences, to discover that there are books to get lost in, books to learn from, books to inspire, books to make you giggle and books with heroes that will accompany you through life. I have been working through the classics: Heidi, The Secret Garden, White Boots, Charlottes Web, Alice in Wonderland. Re-discovering my love for the written word and its incredible ability to transform the bedspread into a dense forest with twigs cracking underfoot and the scent of bonfires in the air, purely through the use of a handful of well chosen words presented in a certain order. Surely this is the ultimate science?
My all time favourite author as a child was Roald Dahl. Wow. What a talent. His flagrant disregard for accepted language, making up words that make you think, ‘well of course that’s a word, it described it perfectly, it can’t not be in the Oxford English Dictionary’. His ability to pitch good against evil, child against tyrannical adult and to do this without the saccharine sweetness of a fairy tale at the close. Dahl sculpted heroes and heroines that were just like you, or even me!
It has been with great joy that I have been re-reading the greats like Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr Fox with my children. Danny The Champion of The World is one of Joshua’s favourite books and every time we read it I discover something new, a little wisdom that Dahl has woven into the fabric of the story to make it ever more meaningful and special. Take for example this statement: “A stodgy parent is no fun at all. What a child wants and deserves is a parent who is SPARKY” my parental inadequacies summed up in one sentence – obviously I’m now trying to be ‘sparky’ at every opportunity. Reading these books at bedtime I am able to make my children laugh out loud(!), to sharply intake their breath in surprise, to leave them wanting more. I love it, I feel like the genie of the lamp every time I pick up a book.
During the summer holidays we undertook a pilgrimage to Great Missenden and the Roald Dahl Museum. Like all great journeys we faced disasters and triumphs along the way. Our first attempt at getting to this little corner of England was thwarted by filthy weather and horrendous traffic, but when we arrived on our second attempt, boy was it worth it. The tiny town in Buckinghamshire is the embodiment of so many of Dahls descriptive masterpieces. I swear that I really did see the BFG stooping to blow dreams into children’s windows of houses that hunched over the high street, and it wasn’t the one that was painted on the wall!
The Roald Dahl Museum is brilliant in its simplicity, it lets the great man himself do the talking. I have to admit that I didn’t learn a massive more about Dahl himself but do you know something?, it didn’t matter. There are storytelling workshops and interactive galleries to inspire even the most reluctant of writers to put pen to paper. There are quotes from the greatest of our contemporary authors to give us clues as to how they do it. Illustrations all over the walls from the brilliant Quentin Blake. Refreshment at Cafe Twit in the form of a ‘Swishswiffler’ (that’s a coke float for the 80’s kids among us – how excellent is that to have on a menu?!?) and ‘SandWitches’ rebooted our energy levels to walk through the town to the church where the literary genius is buried. Thus my pilgrimage came to a fitting end. Dahl once wrote that “those who don’t believe in magic will never find it”. I can report that in Great Missenden, magic was definitely in the air.
Roald Dahl was born on 13th September 1916 and this Sunday is Roald Dahl Day so if you need something to do I can heartily recommend dressing up as your favourite character and popping over to Great Missenden, maybe you, too, will find some magic.