Only Dahl could make such a delightful children's story out of two such miserable, horrid, nasty characters! Of course, he knew how to write an ending...moreOnly Dahl could make such a delightful children's story out of two such miserable, horrid, nasty characters! Of course, he knew how to write an ending that would satisfy our (childish?) sense of justice. It's been years since I read this book, but it was just as I remembered it: delightfully wicked, uproariously funny, and a little sad.
Mr and Mrs Twit are two very ugly people, whose ugliness reflects the ugliness of their hearts. They live in a windowless brick house, play mean and spiteful tricks on each other, and keep a family of monkeys in a cage in the yard, which Mr Twit trains to be the first Upside-Down circus - forcing the poor things to stand on their heads for hours.
Mr Twit also uses an incredibly powerful glue to catch birds for Mrs Twit's bird pie - he paints it on the branches of a dead tree by the monkeys' cage and when the birds land in it to roost, they are stuck fast. When the monkeys meet a bird that can speak their language, they warn it of the danger and it spreads the word to the other birds, so thwarting the Twits. It is only the first step in the monkeys' revenge to give the Twits a dose of their own medicine!
As a child, all my sympathies were in the right place: I laughed at the cruel things the Twits did to each other, because they are funny and they're not sympathetic characters (the saying, they deserve each other, applies well to this pair); I felt upset at the poor tortured monkeys and the poor stuck birds; and I cheered the animals on in their plan to get rid of the Twits once and for all. Since it was also clearly fiction, I certainly didn't see it as a lesson in how to treat real people. The difference is quite obvious. But it does appeal to what I referred to as a "childish" sense of justice - that sense of what's fair that is beaten out of us by experience.
The book wouldn't be complete without Quentin Blake's illustrations, which so delectably capture Dahl's concise descriptions and flesh them out to wicked proportions for our feasting imagination. And, this being one of Dahl's more comic stories, there's plenty of fodder for the imagination (I should also point out that the nastiness of the Twits never bothered me partly because I read it after having watched many times, a-hem, an adult sitcom from the UK called The Young Ones - which quickly became a family favourite and still gets quoted at opportune times - so the Twits seemed like harmless fun to me).
A note on this edition: Dahl's books are usually published by Puffin, the children's imprint of Penguin, and they do a fine job. This is the U.S. Scholastic school library edition, with the same cover and everything, but the binding is very very cheap and nasty and I don't recommend it. I don't like Scholastic for their cheap bindings - I have other books printed by them and they always feel like they're going to fall apart, and the pages are puckered inside. Funny, considering it's meant for school distribution only - the way kids handle books (i.e., roughly), they can't last very long at all!(less)
I got this book in 1988, when I was eight or nine years old, and it was a dear favourite of mine. The story of Danny and his fantastic dad, and their...moreI got this book in 1988, when I was eight or nine years old, and it was a dear favourite of mine. The story of Danny and his fantastic dad, and their life in the old gypsy caravan by the petrol pumps and garage - it was at once a whole new other world, and something very near and dear to me.
Danny is raised by his dad, a mechanic and Danny's hero. They live in a colourful wooden caravan under a large apple tree, serving petrol and fixing cars. Danny's father teaches him all about cars and how to fix them, and Danny is a great help in the garage. At night his dad tells him fabulous stories, and when Danny starts school at seven, his dad walks him there and back every day. Danny has the best life, and he loves his dad more than anything.
Then one night Danny wakes up to find his dad missing. Anxious, because it is the first time his father has disappeared like this, Danny waits up for him. When his father returns, Danny learns that his dad has a secret: he's a pheasant poacher! His own dad was one before him and came up with several ingenius ways of poaching the birds, and Danny's own mother used to join him on poaching nights. This night marked the first night Danny's father had been out in the private woods - owned by the brutish Mr Victor Hazell - since Danny was born.
And so, Danny's father introduces Danny into the world of pheasant poaching - and Danny discovers that virtually the entire town enjoys a spot of pheasant poaching! Even the doctor and the policeman and the minister's wife is involved - and no one likes Mr Hazell, with his "tiny piggy eyes" and "smug superior little smile". But it is Danny himself who comes up with the most clever poaching plan ever conceived - a way to steal all one hundred and twenty birds at once, the night before Mr Hazell's shooting party arrives!
Perhaps because of the different illustrator, or perhaps because it is more of a realistic and human story than many of Dahl's other, Danny the Champion of the World has a different tone and feel to it than classics like The Witches and The BFG. It is more like his memoir of his childhood, Boy, and similar works. It is written for children, and has humour and a lightness of spirit to it, but it is also more serious. In keeping the story "real", though, Dahl shows just how fantastic our real lives can be, without giants and witches and other fantastical things.
It is also a story of one boy's childhood in what I figure was the early 50s, and as such it reads like a story of a completely by-gone era. The chances of someone now having a childhood like Danny's is pretty slim, and so there's something nostalgic about his story - perhaps, again, inspired by Dahl's own childhood, not in the details of the story but in the characters, and the mischief. It's also nostalgic in that small English village way, where everyone knows everyone's secrets, finds clever ways of pulling the wool over the eyes of people they don't like, and can generally be counted upon in a pinch.
In the schemes for poaching pheasants, there is definitely a touch of the wildly flamboyant Dahl we all know and love: "The Horse-hair Stopper" and "The Sticky Hat"; and in the description of oafish and cruel Victor Hazell. Danny's father, who's never named, is a fantastic figure, and when Danny calls him the best father in the world, you find yourself easily agreeing with him. Well, he may be at times irresponsible and a little wild, but he has the qualities you want in a great father - and this is Dahl's message, proudly spelled out at the back of the book:
A MESSAGE to Children Who Have Read This Book
When you grow up and have children of your own do please remember something important
a stodgy parent is no fun at all
What a child wants and deserves is a parent who is
It's great, even as an adult, to come to that at the end of the book (something I had completely forgotten was there) and be reminded of what I loved and admired in adults when I was a kid. I loved the artist friend of my parents who, when he and his wife came over for dinner, would take the time to entertain us with magic tricks and make us laugh. Or my nanna when she would put me on her lap and read fairy tales to me. Or my dad (and grandad) when he'd lie on his back in the passage, put me on his feet, and toss me over his head, always catching me and setting me on my feet. Learning about plants with my mum. These are the memories we keep, after all - the ones that chase the darker shadows away. It seems like the current trend in parenting is to fill your kids' days with activities, sport, hobbies, studies, rather than spend time having fun with them. Or even to buy horrid plastic toy sets and computer games for toddlers and older - it's so much better to let kids invent their own games, make their own toys and things out of random household odds and ends and scraps, and play amongst themselves.
Danny's inventiveness in the poaching scheme earns well-deserved praise from his dad and others, and his father calls him the champion of the world - far from being a form of gross steroid to a child's self-esteem, it humbles Danny but leaves him re-affirmed in the greatness of his one remaining parent. The two are a close family unit who share everything with each other, and so it doesn't matter that they're poor, that they live in a little caravan with just a little paraffin stove to heat up food on: they have each other, and love, and great stories and fantastic adventures. Having money isn't the key to happiness, is I think Dahl's other message here.
On a side note, it was interesting reading this after so many years, because I had a vivid memory of one of Bennett's illustrations at the very end of the book, which doesn't exist! I remembered it ending - with accompanying illustration - with all the pheasants roosting in the apple tree above the caravan. I must have invented this ending for myself, as a child, and improved upon it each time I read it until it supplanted the real ending in my head. I've done this with other things from my childhood, so it wouldn't surprise me in the least. It is the ending I would have liked, but not a realistic one! (less)
I think this was the first Dahl book I ever read, though my memory's a bit confused now - it was either this book or Danny the Champion of the World;...moreI think this was the first Dahl book I ever read, though my memory's a bit confused now - it was either this book or Danny the Champion of the World; I think it was this one. I think I borrowed it so many times from the school library that my mother caved and bought it for me - inside the front cover, where I've written my name and the year (1988 - when I was 8), it says "TREAT!" in big letters. We didn't get things very often outside of birthdays and Christmas, so when I did get something as a treat it was doubly special to me.
The BFG is about Sophie, an orphan, who one night during the "witching hour" in the middle of the night, when she can't sleep, goes to the window and sees something extraordinary: a giant, as tall as a two-storey house or more, peering into bedroom windows as he goes down the street. The giant sees her, plucks her from her room and runs off, running so fast and so far she has no idea where she is when he finally stops - which turns out to be in Giant Country.
The giant has an underground cave with a giant-sized table and chair, and shelves full of glass jars. Sophie is sure she's going to be eaten, but it turns out the giant who kidnapped her is the BFG - the Big Friendly Giant. (His English isn't very good and is riddled with grammatical mistakes, so you have to forgive him for calling himself a big giant.) However, the other giants - much bigger than the BFG - aren't friendly at all. Every night they race off to different countries to guzzle down humans. They're smelly, hairy, ignorant and lazy, but they're very very big and very very strong. The BFG lives on a disgusting vegetable called the Snozzcumber - it looks like a giant pimply cucumber and tastes simply awful.
Sophie learns all about the BFG's life, and what he was doing looking into children's bedrooms at night: he collects dreams, and the good ones he blows into children's rooms while they are sleeping, so they have good dreams. His jars are full of dreams, each labelled with the gist of the dream in the BFG's childlike writing:
I IS MAKING MYSELF A MARVELUS PAIR OF SUCTION BOOTS AND WHEN I PUT THEM ON I IS ABLE TO WALK STRATE UP THE KITSHUN WALL AND ACROSS THE CEILING. WELL, I IS WALKING UPSIDE DOWN ON THE CEILING WHEN MY BIG SISTER COMES IN AND SHE IS STARTING TO YELL AT ME AS SHE ALWAYS DOES, YELLING WOT ON EARTH IS YOU DOING UP THERE WALKING ON THE CEILING AND I LOOKS DOWN AT HER AND I SMILES AND I SAYS I TOLD YOU YOU WAS DRIVING ME UP THE WALL AND NOW YOU HAS DONE IT. (pp.104-5)
The BFG's dream collection gives Sophie an idea for how to rid the world of the giants, but it will involve cunning, courage and the help of a very important lady.
I know this story so well that even though I haven't read it in years, every word seemed familiar to me as I read along. It all came back, not in a rush but in a trickle, as I read. It makes for a very comforting, fond read! I felt a little bit like I connected with my eight-year-old self, because I could also recall how I felt about the different scenes. Like the very beginning, with Sophie awake in the dead of night - the witching hour - and seeing the giant in the moonlit street and trying to hide behind the curtains. I remember how that scene filled my head as a child, seeming much larger and deeper a scene, Dahl's words crafting something much bigger than a mere children's book. And I felt some of that again, felt the chills, the anticipation, the fear of the other giants, the wonderment of the almost invisible dreams, and laughed at the funny stories the dreams wanted to share with children.
So the magic was still there. I think, with Dahl, it always will be. He was such an amazing story-teller, no one really compares to him. He had such fun with his stories, with delighting children and, I'm sure, making their parents laugh despite themselves. He wasn't ashamed to play, to have fun, and to make the world an exciting place. And he taught us how to love language, and how to have fun with it.
No doubt, if you never read any Dahl as a kid, starting as an adult probably won't satisfy as much. (For you, I would recommend Henry Sugar, a collection of short stories for adults that are quite different, almost disturbing, in a fascinating, can't-look-away way.) Then again, maybe they will. I would like to think they would. And you can start anywhere, with any Dahl book, because while we fans have our favourites, they're all treasures. Other books of his came to eclipse The BFG as my favourite - The Witches, for one - but this book will always hold a special place for me. I like to give authors like Dahl credit for encouraging my imagination as a child, my wonderment, and my openness to other possibilities.
Reading The BFG as an adult, of course you notice implausibilities - not the giants, or the dreams, but in the plan to capture the other giants, for instance - but none of it matters. It makes sense to a child who built forts out of straw bales and sticks and made towns and roads for matchbox cars out of piles of fine gravel - I'm sure if Dahl were around today he would scorn the plastic junk toys and computer games that keep kids indoors, glued to a screen or stifled by a toy that only has one function.
One thing that I still find refreshing about Dahl - especially after the spate of YA books I've read over the last few years which like to pretend that teenagers don't even swear - oh golly gosh! - is that he's very un-PC. I've never ever found his books to be offensive in any way; rather, he felt even more like a family friend for being so real about things. It does make me wonder, though, if the days of someone who writes like this - for children - getting published are over. I'm sure there are authors writing today who are just as irreverent and silly and a bit rude, I just can't think of any right now.
Dahl wasn't just an author to me, as a kid - he was like the best uncle ever, a mentor, someone you looked up to and wanted to make proud. You wanted his attention as much as you wanted to hear his stories. You wanted a bit of Dahl in your life, however small. Because he was magic, and I'm so glad I still have that.
Well, this isn't really a review of the book, is it, so much as a memorial service twenty years too late - but that's what The BFG means to me, and that's what I wanted to share. :) (less)
Merlin wakes up in a helicopter that has crashed in a forest. The pilot is dead, there's a metal collar around her neck with a broken chain hanging fr...moreMerlin wakes up in a helicopter that has crashed in a forest. The pilot is dead, there's a metal collar around her neck with a broken chain hanging from it, and her memories are patchy and impersonal. Not to mention that these memories - memories of the world as we know it - do not match the world in which she finds herself: asphalt roads almost disappeared beneath grass, crumbling buildings and skyscrapers swallowed up by vigorous forest. It is silent and deserted, and Merlin wanders lost and confused until she meets Ford, a young man who looks nothing like the people in her memories.
So begins Scatterlings, one of my favourite books by one of my favourite authors. It's fantasy with, I guess, a sci-fi bent, and philosophical underpinings. I love the twist at the end. Ok, it's not a "twist" like in Fight Club, but it's a perfect resolution to the mystery of Merlin.
Lara's mother Cheryl has just died from a long battle with cancer, leaving her to the care of the Man, her father Larry Ritchie, who Cheryl managed to...moreLara's mother Cheryl has just died from a long battle with cancer, leaving her to the care of the Man, her father Larry Ritchie, who Cheryl managed to track down before she died. He's practically a stranger to Lara, but she warms to this tall, lean, weather-beaten man almost immediately. He takes her home to his own family of hard wife Gladwyn and four children, all younger than Lara: Opal, Pearl, Garnet and baby Jasper. Home is a farm called Willy Nilly out the back of the Bulahdelah Mountains in northern NSW, past Newcastle.
Gladwyn is cold towards her, and Opal is distinctly unwelcoming. The younger children take to her, but between the hard work on the farm, the bully Gowd Gadrey at school who lives down the road, and Opal and Gladwyn's dislike of her, Lara sorely misses her mother. Larry is often gone for long stretches of time, leaving Gladwyn to manage the homestead and fern farm in a tough land and harsh climate.
Lonely, Lara befriends and is befriended by a dog she meets in the bush who comes during a thunderstorm - so she names him Thunderwith. Her only friend, he accompanies her on treks through the bush whenever she can get free, and the only person she tells is an Aboriginal Elder who tells Dreamtime stories at the school.
As the animosity between her and Gladwyn increases, as the heat rises and the bullying intensifies, something has to crack, but the price for gaining a new family turns out to be more than Lara would ever want to pay.
I have read this book countless times since grade 5 and it never loses its power over me - to absorb me, to make me cry. It's like an old friend, comforting and challenging at the same time. It's easily one of my most favoured books of all time.
This is a book that seemed to come at just the right moment in my life, just as Thunderwith came to Lara. It sometimes felt like it had been written just for me. I read this book, about a girl whose mother dies of cancer so she goes to live with her Dad's somewhat unwelcoming and hostile family in the bush, just months before finding out I had an older sister too. This book was my best friend for months, if not years, a surprise gift from my mother because she knew I loved it so much - one of the first books I ever owned.
The beauty of the Australian landscape is captured flawlessly in this novel, transporting me to the wild bush and rugged mountains, the scent of eucalyptus and soil and sheep surrounding me from memory.
It makes me cry every time I read it, makes me sob, and I still come back to it time and time again. I love it on a deep personal level, and it holds a precious place in my heart.(less)