James and the Giant Peach
Roald Dahl remains one of the most controversial of children’s authors. His first novel, James and the Giant Peach, was written in 1961, but continues to enchant readers and incite critics to this day. Dahl’s unique literary style is the source of his longevity. His writing has the ability to leave a child “enthralled and agreeably disgusted and pleasurably afraid” . While the first quality might interest teachers and parents, the remaining two are likely to make adults question the suitability of his books.
Dahl’s use of fantasy has been widely debated, but disagreeable critics who argue against his stories miss an important point when discussing fantasy and reality. Reality is that which has a factual truth, reflecting true conditions without idealizing the situation. Fantasy on the other hand is an imaginative, unrestrained fancy that as inventive and creative is also quite fictional. In truth, a child’s reality is often very different than how adults perceive his reality to be. Parent’s often idealize youth and create their own fantasy of childhood, without acknowledging a child’s true reality. Dahl is successful because he acknowledges a child’s true reality, and through the efficient implementation of fantasy, offers the child an outlet for that reality, while creating for himself a boundless literary canvas. The tension between reality and fantasy in Dahl’s stories is what appeals to his young readers. A modicum less of either would fail to achieve the same results.
Take for instance the death of James’s parents. This is a tragedy and tragedy itself is not foreign to a child’s reality. Even if a child has not lost a parent, he most certainly knows the implications of death. By killing off James’s parents, Dahl does several things. He acknowledges a child’s understanding that life is not fair and that tragedy exists, but he does it in a way in which children can cope. James’s parents don’t succumb to cancer, or get caught in a shoot-out. This would be too real. No, James’s parents are killed by rhinoceroses. Now, a child can acknowledge the unfairness of the tragedy, but proceed without being burdened with too much reality. Making James and orphan was also a creative literary device; it meant that James was less tethered to any adults in the novel, and allowed for introduction of the antagonists, the evil aunts. This is a technique often employed by authors that empowers children to become independent and self-sufficient.
The aunts were, as Dahl stated, “both really horrible people”. Abuse is a reality for some children. Dahl would be the first to tell you this since, as Royer relates in justification of his world view, Dahl himself was the product of a harshly disciplined school system where he was beaten repeatedly and even severely caned for disobedience.