Imagine, if you’re not actually there, that you’re lying down in bed, snuggled under a warm blanket. Your dad or mom has just told you a magical story about a kind giant who brings pleasant dreams to children. As you close your eyes, you think about the giant–what he might look like, what you would do if you met him. Just then, you hear a gentle tapping on your open window, and a bamboo pole pokes through! A puff of air whiffs out of the tube in your direction. This is like the story you just heard! You wonder with excitement if it’s the friendly giant, blowing sweet dreams into your room.
When Lucy Dahl was a little girl, this very thing happened to her. As a grown-up, she told a TV interviewer about it. Lucy’s father, Roald Dahl, told her that story of the big, friendly giant who puffed sweet dreams into the minds of children as they dropped off to sleep. He wrote that story, The BFG, and many others, as one of the most famous children’s authors of the twentieth century. Lucy and her siblings were lucky enough to hear many of his tales as bedtime stories.
Born in 1916, both of Roald’s parents were from Norway. They spoke Norwegian at home, and his mother told him Norwegian fairy tales as a child. They even named him after a famous Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundson, who was the first person to reach the South Pole. But his father, Harald, was convinced that England had the best schools in the world, and so that is where they lived. Harald was wealthy due to his work in the shipping industry, and the family lived in a very large house in Wales, which is in the southern part of the island of Great Britain.
Despite the family’s wealth, Dahl’s childhood was sad at times. His older sister died of an infection when he was three, and his father passed away from an illness only a few weeks later. This left his mother, Sophie, suddenly alone to raise 6 children, but she decided to stay in England so her children could attend school there, as Harald had wished.
Unfortunately, some of the schools Roald attended were not quite what a loving parent would hope for. Roald loved to pull pranks, which didn’t go over so well with his elementary school’s headmaster. Once, he put a dead mouse in a jar of gobstoppers at a local candy shop. He and his friends thought the owner was mean-spirited and grumpy, and that may have been true, but the dead mouse may have taken things too far. The owner went to the headmaster of the school to complain. But what happened next should never have happened. The headmaster definitely took things too far: he punished Roald and his friends by hitting them!
Fortunately, Roald’s mother Sophie was a loving parent. She didn’t approve of the headmaster hitting her son, even though it was legal back then, and she told him so. She also took Roald out of that school and sent him to a boarding school–that is, where the students actually live at the school–the next year.
Although Sophie wanted to improve her son’s situation, the boarding school was no better. Roald was watched over by another strict and cruel headmaster, and most of the other adults at the school, from the teachers to the nurse and dorm supervisor, followed his example. Roald wrote to his mother every week, but because the headmaster read the letters, he never wrote anything bad about the school.
Though his school experiences were pretty awful on the whole, Roald did have happy times during his childhood. At one school, the students got to “test” Cadbury chocolates that the company provided. Roald dreamed of working in a candy lab, where he would invent a new candy that would impress Mr. Cadbury himself. Maybe this reminds you a little of Dahl’s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!
Summers were another happy time for Roald. His family spent every summer in Norway, where they would visit with his grandparents and share a huge feast, then vacation on a remote island. There, they would fish, boat, swim, and relax as a family.
When he finished school, Roald didn’t want to continue on and go to college–understandable given how terrible his experiences with school had been so far. Instead, he wanted to travel the world. He found a job with the Shell Oil Company that took him to live in Tanzania.
When World War II started, Roald joined the Royal Air Force to train as a fighter pilot. His service took him to many more countries: Iraq, Egypt, and Greece among them. But in September of 1940, something terrible happened: Dahl crashed his plane in the Egyptian desert. He managed to crawl away from the wreckage, but his skull was fractured and he had been blinded. He was rescued and taken to a hospital, where he slowly recovered and his eyesight returned. He was released from the hospital in February 1941.
The air force returned Dahl to flying planes. They sent him to fight in Greece, where he took part in the Battle of Athens. He described fighting in these aerial battles as “an endless blur of enemy fighters whizzing towards me from every side”. Can you imagine being in a tiny airplane, with lots of other planes swooping and buzzing past you?
Soon after his time in Greece, Dahl began having headaches and blackouts related to injuries from the crash. This time, the air force sent him back home to England. He couldn’t fly a plane when he might suddenly get a terrible headache or lose consciousness. He took a diplomatic job for the British in the US but didn’t like it. The work felt unimportant after fighting in the war.
But one thing did happen while Dahl was working in Washington DC that would change his life, and the lives of millions of young readers, forever. Dahl met a famous novelist named CS Forester. Forester asked Dahl to write about some of his war experiences, which Forester planned to turn into a story for the magazine The Saturday Evening Post. So Dahl wrote down his adventures as a fighter pilot. When Forester got Dahl’s version of the story, he liked it so much, he decided to publish it just as Dahl had written it, instead of rewriting it himself. Without really trying, Roald Dahl was suddenly a writer!
Dahl would go on to do all kinds of writing. He wrote short stories for grown-ups, some of which were turned into television shows. He wrote scripts for two movies. One of these was the children’s movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, about a family’s special car. You might be surprised to learn that the other was actually for the 1967 James Bond movie You Only Live Twice!
But of course, Dahl is best known for his beloved children’s books. If you’ve read them (and I do recommend you read them), you know that his books are wildly imaginative, funny, exciting, and sometimes a little scary.
Many of Dahl’s children’s books started out as stories he made up and told his own children when they were young. These stories were full of magic and whimsy, like a fantastic chocolate factory, giants who bring dreams to children, gnome-like creatures who live in trees, and a giant peach that carries a boy and his insect friends across the ocean. Roald was inspired by the English countryside around his home, by the Norwegian fairy tales his mother told him, and by people he’d met over the years. The hero of his books is almost always a child. Usually, they have to face adults who are unfair, even cruel. But of course, the child wins in the end by using their intelligence, imagination, and kindness. There’s always at least one adult who is kind and who is on the child’s side, though often it’s the child who helps this grown-up with their problems, instead of the other way around!
Does this sound a little like Dahl was recalling his own childhood? Like his characters, he had to face some scary and unfair grown-ups, though he also had his kind and loving mother to come home to. He enjoyed having fun and playing pranks, just like many of the children in his books, and just like them, he was strong enough to get through these tough situations.
Millions of Dahl’s books are still sold every year. Many have been made into films over the years, including Matilda, The BFG, James and the Giant Peach and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was made into a film twice! Matilda was also turned into a Broadway musical. Every year on his birthday, September 13th, fans around the world celebrate Roald Dahl Day by dressing up as characters from his books, throwing parties, and putting on performances inspired by his writing.
Roald Dahl faced many hard situations in his life, but always kept his sense of humor and wonder. Sometimes, reading about someone who overcomes a scary situation can help us face our own challenges in real life. Whether it’s performing on stage, jumping off the diving board, or going to a new school, new experiences can be both exciting and scary. As Dahl put it, “Most of the really exciting things we do in our lives scare us to death. They wouldn’t be exciting if they didn’t.” Dahl knew that sometimes, life throws up challenges, but that there was also magic and wonder in it. It’s important to keep looking for the magic, even when the world seems ugly and dark. Again, Dahl himself put it best: “watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you, because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.” And just like the children in Dahl’s books, you can get through hard situations, and you can find those unlikely places where beautiful things await you.
Interview with Lucy Dahl: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yvd_JiNXdz4&t=1s
Dahl, Roald, 1984. Boy: Tales of Childhood. Puffin Books, New York.