Hal is now six and for storytime at home it has to be Roald Dahl. His father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, explains.
Last year Hal’s Granny gave him a boxed set of children’s stories by Roald Dahl. My wife Jo read George’s Marvellous Medicine to Hal in July. ‘He really enjoys them,’ she said to me after George had gone down well. So I started on another one, Danny, the Champion of the World. After a couple of chapters we were both hooked. And since then we have read nothing but Roald Dahl. We have read Matilda, The Twits, The Witches, James and the Giant Peach and now, after several months, we are nearing the end of the final tale in the box, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Hal really loves these stories. Previously he has never talked about looking forward to the next instalment of a book and wishing that the evening and story time would come around sooner. But with Roald Dahl there is a completely different level of enthusiasm. He is longing for the next bit of the tale and sometimes talks about the story during the day as he has never done with other books.
But what is it that makes Dahl so compelling for Hal? A part of the answer, I think, is that Dahl is a master of dramatic tension. Dahl stories usual centre on a struggle between an innocent, good child, and adults, or occasionally children, who exhibit various forms of nastiness, be it selfishness, greed, pretentiousness or even child-hating and cruelty. A basic device is that the forces of evil seem to be far more powerful than the innocent child, and your reading is driven along by your hope that the child will somehow come out on top despite desperately unpromising odds.
This kind of stuff is, of course, pretty conventional, but one of the things Dahl does really well is that he gets you to engage with the characters in a very powerful way. You really feel for the persecuted hero. You really loathe the self-serving, nasty villains. And this drama works, I think, because though the villains are fantastical in some respects their nasty feelings are very, very human and because of that you really feel for their victims.
Another thing that Hal likes very much about the Dahl books is how the heroes manage to carry the day. On a recent car journey, knowing that I was going to be writing this, I quizzed him about what he liked about the stories. ‘The clever tricks,’ he said, ‘like when Matilda gets her Dad’s hat to stick to her head.’ Dahl must have been a lover of tricks, and in many of the books it’s cunning tricks that allow the weaker hero to prevail. In Danny there’s a brilliant ruse for poaching the nasty landowner’s pheasants. Matilda uses a battery of ploys to outwit first her parents and then Miss Trunchbull. The unnamed hero of The Witches manages to defeat an entire witches’ convention by some clever stuff with one of their own magic potions. What the impact of this on Hal long term will be I do not know. But since we started on Roald Dahl there has been a great deal more laying of traps for unsuspecting parents around the house than there was before.
Roald Dahl stories are obviously wonderful stuff for Hal. And I have to say that it isn’t only him. The reading of his bed-time story, particularly on an evening when work has been draining, has sometimes felt like a chore. But knowing that we are going to be reading a Roald Dahl and I am as eager to get down to story time as he is. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that these fantastic books have subtly changed the whole feel of the evening read because it is so eagerly looked forward to by both of us. In fact there is only one problem with our Roald Dahl collection that I can think of. We are about to finish the last book in the box.
Roald Dahl titles are published by Puffin.