Sunday, 13 April 2008

Vermicious knids and boiled slobbages: rediscovering Roald Dahl

'Oh, I needn't read James and the Giant Peach,' my nine-year-old daughter said airily, 'because I've seen the movie.' A comment like this is just inviting a swift snotklap from me, especially as I've seen the same excuse limping from the mouths of all three of my kids over their formative reading years.

'Per-lease,' I snorted. 'The movie was rubbish. The book's brilliant. I read it at least fourteen times when I was your age.'

'Yes, mummy, what-ev-ah. And you read Charlie and The Chocolate Factory sixteen times. But I don't need to, because I've seen that movie too. At least six times.'

Have you had a conversation like this with your kids? If so, you'll agree that arguing is futile. The more you plead, the deeper in they dig their heels. Any child who suspects a book is being forced upon it will - rightly and necessarily, I have to concede - refuse to read it, or at the very least regard the book with the deepest suspicion.

But I don't beg my kids to read books because I think they're Improving or Worthy or even Educational. I want them to read because being able to burrow into a book is one of the great pleasures of my adult life, and I want them to enjoy the pleasure of reading for its own sake. Reading was one of the most delicious aspects of my childhood: I can still remember, with a shivering thrill, the utter luxury of being ten years old, sinking into an armchair with a packet of chocolate digestives, and reading until the room darkened and my eyes ached.

It's not that my kids don't read - they do, and, compared to their peers, they read a lot, within the genres that interest them. But, as I often point out to my teenage boys and my daughter, fantasy and sci-fi are not the only canons ever invented. There is life beyond JRR Tolkien and Trudi Canavan. My Little Pinky Unicorn and Ultra-Glittery Retard Kittens have some significant rivals in the world of children's fiction.

Frankly, I don't know what else I can do to get them to read the books I so loved at their age, apart from chopping them to bits and stuffing them up their nostrils. Luckily, in the case of the teen boys, they have magnificent setworks at school, so at least they are getting a dose of old and modern classics. But my daughter has been harder to convince.

She has mountains of Roald Dahl books, many Pippi Longstockings, a vast collection of Williams, many of Arthur Ransome's books, all the Magic Faraway Trees, The Secret Garden, the Jungle Book, The Sword in the Stone, Dr DooLittle, Charlotte's Web, Alice in Wonderland, all the Narnia books, and so on, and I still can't get her to spend more than half an hour a day with her nose in a book (reading it herself, that is). I have a copy of Philip Pullman's brilliant Northern Lights lined up for her, but even that she has turned her nose up at, with the usual excuse that she's 'seen the movie'.

No amount of reading of bedtime stories has really made any difference to her nose-in-a-book time. She refused, point-blank, to read - or have read to her - Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, even though I eagerly described the vermicious knids, with their immortal F-Off message.

Until recently. Until I walked into the Listener's Library last year and borrowed a few recordings of my favourite, dearly beloved Roald Dahl and William books, read by proper, well-trained actors with ringing voices and that wonderful, droll English sense of timing.

We listen at every opportunity to these recordings, and she's so hooked that she's now reading them, again, herself. She's read Matilda, The Witches, James and the Giant Peach, and has just started The Twits.

The dear girl spent the entire afternoon today lying in an inflatable toy boat packed with cushions in the shade of a silver birch tree in our garden, reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory , out loud, to her beloved soft toys, the Bunny Kaylah and the Bear Taylah.

I lay on a blanket next to her, trying to concentrate on my own book, but guffawing every now and then when I heard her giggling over the sentences that so tickled and enchanted me as a ten year old. (Do you remember the bit where Prince Pondicherry's chocolate castle melts in the sun?)

Best of all? She complained with great indignation about the illustrations in the copy of The BFJ I bought her. 'The big friendly giant looks all wrong!' she said.

'Why?' I asked with dripping sarcasm (and I think I was justified, considering the illustrations were the work of the genius Quentin Blake), 'I suppose you've seen the movie?'

'Oh, no, but I've heard the book,' she answered (loftily). 'And can insure you, mom, that my mind picture of the BFJ doesn't look anything like that.'


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