What makes Roald Dahl such a successful children’s writer?

Copyright © 2012 Jerry Dunne

Popular since he started writing for children and still popular after his death with his work now turned into a franchise, what is it that still makes Roald Dahl so successful?

Many people completely underestimate the power of Dahl’s writing and many of these simply don’t like him, anyway; he’s not to their taste one little bit, and they fail to see why children like him. These adults treat him strictly on their own terms of taste and not on the young readership’s. Most of them also believe his children’s writing is cheap prose that lacks depth and is the equivalent of pulp fiction.

But Dahl was an accomplished craftsman who wrote skilful narrative that keeps the reader enthralled from start to finish. This is perhaps the hardest skill for a writer to achieve. His compelling narrative demonstrates his instinct for first class storytelling. It is apparent in works as diverse as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Danny The Champion of the World. His narrative skills combined with his original style, perspective, humour, colourful passages and constant bursts of energy makes Charlie, despite its lack of a leading child protagonist pushing the plot forward, one of the favourite children’s stories over the last fifty years.

Although Danny is one of the least talked about books, and though it is not an exaggerated and grotesque fantasy type story like so many of his other children’s stories, because of its very skilful narrative, it remains a master class in storytelling. Danny is a gem of a story, not just in narrative terms, and not just in the way Dahl so mischievously and humorously reveals its moral perspective, but also in its attention to poignant detail of character and setting.

With many of Dahl’s stories this skill with narrative become even trickier to accomplish as most of his children’s stories start on a high note of imagination with lots of quirky, grotesque character and grotesque, black humour mixed in; and then he never lets up with this mixture, keeping it at a high level right through to the last page. Many writers try to write like this. They start on a high imaginative note: they start with a good and quirky idea that children like. But soon the story begins to unravel. The humour turns into jokes, corny mostly, the quirkiness disappears and the writer then spends chapter after chapter struggling to find the imagination which peaked in the first chapter and never reappeared. Not only this, but the plot also rambles, sometimes so much it is easy to forget there is a plot. I have come across this so often that when I hear someone run down Dahl I find myself (without meaning to) laughing out loud.

Why is it so difficult to write a skilful and intriguing narrative brimming over with humour and quirkiness? How come Dahl and not they?

To write a quirky story you must have a quirky view of the world. A quirky view of the world means you have it in the detail, not just in the idea. A writer like Dahl could take the most banal of ideas and write about it with imagination and quirkiness. Some of Dahl’s initial ideas are after all not really that imaginative or quirky. But he was able to turn them into grotesque and humorous pieces of writing because that was the way he saw the world. The length of a novel will certainly test the ability of a writer’s imagination. The devil really is in the detail.

But it is not just that he had imagination, but that his style of imagination rings a bell with his audience. This style mirrors the style of a child’s imagination, enabling the reader to identify easily with his stories. This includes his grotesque sense of humour and his grotesque characterization. To an adult, his characters are greatly exaggerated (though the nature on display is hardly so), but to the child reader they are not. Through his work he says to his readers, yes the world can be lovely, but it doesn’t mean it is always so because you and I both know there are truly dreadful people in it. Because you are a small person, I know that horrid people look big, formidable and grotesque from your point of view. But don’t worry! I’ll give you a hero, small and normal just like you, who will overcome all these nasty types. Dahl never forgot his vivid and stylish imagination from childhood that served him to such devastating effect later in life.

Thanks for reading this post.

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3 Responses to What makes Roald Dahl such a successful children’s writer?

  1. Meg says:

    What does he mean, in 3rd paragraph –

    “despite its lack of a leading child protagonist pushing the plot forward, one of the favourite children’s stories over the last fifty years.”

    Charlie was the leading child protagonist – unless it’s suggested that this is a point which lacks drive in the plot?

    I’m doing an adaptation of the Twits at university, just doing a spot of research. Thanks.

    • jerrydunne says:

      Hi Meg. As far as I remember, as it’s been a while since I wrote this post, Charlie, the leading child protagonist, the hero of the story, does not push the plot forward. Instead, he is passive and events happen to him, the plot sweeps him along. In most successful children’s stories, the protagonist holds the reins in the story; they make events happen, whether from the off or in reaction to things done to them, which is another way of saying that they push the plot forward. Despite this big flaw in the story, it is still massively successful with children – because of the reasons I mentioned in the post.
      I can imagine you’re going to have lots of fun adapting the Twits to the stage. Good luck with it.

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