Wednesday, March 21, 2018

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

Timeless fun for kids and grown-ups
As the father of two young boys, I’m always looking for chapter books to read with my sons, and whenever possible I try to steer them towards the classics, just for an occasional break from Captain Underpants. I’m not one of those grown-up readers who seeks out kid lit for its own sake, but I did enjoy James and the Giant Peach quite a bit. Originally published in 1961, it was the first children’s novel by British author Roald Dahl.

The story is about a young English boy named James Henry Trotter who lives a dark and dreary existence until a stranger gives him a handful of magic “crocodile tongues.” James accidently spills these little green rice-like objects on the ground under a peach tree, which results in the startling growth of the titular gargantuan fruit. After discovering a hole in the peach, James climbs inside, where he finds and befriends a group of intelligent, man-sized insects. Together they embark on a wacky journey that takes them far from home.

As is often the case with the protagonists of children’s literature, James is an orphan. He is forced to live with his two aunts, who serve the same function as the Evil Stepmother or Wicked Witch in many a fairy tale. This pair of harpies makes James’s life a living hell by heaping upon him verbal and physical abuse. Most children to some extent see themselves as persecuted by authority figures who tell them what to do, so young readers will no doubt enjoy reading about how James liberates himself from these two terrible guardians. Dahl takes the aunts’ ill treatment of James to such an extent, however, that some young readers may even find it scary. Another aspect of the book that may not be suitable for everyone is Dahl’s repeated use of the A-word (synonymous with donkey) to describe a stupid person (If I actually type the word, Amazon’s database will reject this review). Sure, it’s not the worst case of profanity, but probably not something you want to add to your kids’ daily vocabulary either.

There really isn’t much of a lesson to learn from James and the Giant Peach, which makes it even more fun. James makes friends along the way, and they work together to solve problems, so I suppose friendship is a theme, but mostly you just follow along on the bizarre adventure and enjoy it for what it is. There’s no heavy-handed moral that Dahl is pushing. For moms and dads, he satirizes Cold War paranoia in a few scenes, but not nearly to the extent that he does in his 1982 novel The BFG. Mostly, James and the Giant Peach is just a weirdly fun adventure with a lot of delightfully silly humor in it. My sons enjoyed it even more than I did and laughed out loud over quite a few passages. Though neither brief for a children’s book nor particularly dumbed-down in its vocabulary, my second-grade son didn’t have any trouble reading the prose, but I think even kids as old as fourth or fifth grade would still get a kick out of the story.
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