Tuesday 28 September 2010

Roald Dahl

Speaking of children's books, here is a passage from "Storyteller: The Life Of Roald Dahl" by Donald Sturrock, published earlier this month. Roald Dahl's approach to storytelling is an inspiration: much of it is true of illustration, not only for children but for adults. The most entertaining, illuminating and memorable pictures capture the viewer in the same way that Roald Dahl engaged the reader. I've transcribed this section from Book Of The Week on Radio 4.


His publisher, Alfred Knopf, had been far-sighted when, in the mid-1960s, he described Dahl as "one of the wizards; one of the wonder-men of this age". Twenty years later the middle-aged wizard had become the grand old master of his craft. He knew how to shock; he knew how to scare; he knew how to keep the reader on the edge of their seat with excitement. He knew how to make them smile and how to make them roar with laughter. His "passionate purpose", as he described it, had become to teach children "to be comfortable with a book - and to read a book". He wanted to take them out of their everyday environment, filled with chores and schoolwork and to lift them into some kind of "marvellous, funny or incredible place". He was proud of being the voice of youth in a world that sometimes seemed to despise children, much as it seemed to despise him. Only a couple of months before he died he jotted down some notes for a lecture. To children, he reflected, grown-ups were giants and consequently all these people, whether it is the mother or the father or the teacher, were subconsciously the enemy.

This fact is not generally realised by adults. When I write a book which vilifies parents or teachers, eg. "Matilda", children absolutely love it. This is because the children shout "Hooray! Here at last is a grown-up who understands what it's like to be one of us."

He had outlined this philosophy more than ten years earlier in an article that reads almost as a manifesto for his craft.

What makes a good children's writer? The writer must have a genuine and powerful wish not only to entertain children but to teach them the habit of reading. He must be a jokey sort of fellow. He must like simple tricks and jokes and riddles and other childish things. He must be unconventional and inventive. He must have a really first-class plot. He must know what enthralls children and what bores them. They love being spooked. They love suspense. They love action. They love ghosts. They love the finding of treasure. They love chocolates and toys and money. They love magic. They love being made to giggle. They love seeing the villain meet a grizzly death. They love a hero and they love the hero to be a winner... but they hate descriptive passages and flowery prose. They hate long descriptions of any sort. Many of them are sensitive to good writing and can spot a clumsy sentence. They like stories that contain a threat:
"D'you know what I feel like?" said the big crocodile to the smaller one. "I feel like having myself a nice, plump, juicy child for my lunch."
They love that sort of thing. What else do they love? New inventions; unorthodox methods; eccentricity; secret information. The list is long, but above all, when you write a story for them, bear in mind that they do not possess the same power of concentration as an adult and they become very easily bored or diverted. Your story therefore must tantalise and titillate them on every page and all the time that you are writing you must be saying to yourself "Is this too slow? Is it too dull? Will they stop reading?". To those questions you must answer "yes" more often than you answer "no". If so, you must cross it out and start again.


1: At Harper Collins.
2: At Amazon.

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