Forty years ago, author April Henry, then 12 years old, decided to send one of her short stories to the renowned Roald Dahl. “I remember loving his stories,” recalls the author of The Night She Disappeared (Holt/Ottaviano) and other books for teens and adults. She’d devoured Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Dahl’s short fiction and, she says, “My Dad had said I could send a note to an author in care of his publisher.”
She mailed Dahl a handwritten story on ruled paper, about a six-foot-tall frog named Herman who loved peanut butter. Several months later, she received a typewritten postcard signed by Dahl himself, saying he had read the story to his secretary Hazel and his daughter Ophelia – and each of them had enjoyed it.
Upon receiving the card, Henry excitedly showed it to all of her friends. “Having grown up in a small town [Medford, Ore.], it was a big deal just to get mail from overseas,” she explains. “I had an idea that I took up more room in his head than I actually did.” Henry eventually retired her prized possession to a shelf inside her bedroom closet, away from the possibly prying hands of her younger sister.
Years later, Henryntalks about how Dahl’s missive has helped shape her writing. Inspired by Dahl’s ability to craft a twist ending, especially in his short stories, Henry says she tries to replicate this style in her own work. “In [Dahl’s] ‘Lamb to the Slaughter,’ Patrick Maloney tells his pregnant wife he’s leaving her,” she notes. “At first, she tries to pretend that nothing has really changed and takes some meat from the freezer to make dinner. But then she snaps.” The story continues with Mary Maloney smacking her husband in the back of the head with the frozen meat—a detail that Henry mirrors in her own Girl, Stolen when the main character swings a wrench “like a man splitting a log with an ax.”
Henry also seeks to emulate Dahl in her character development. “His work has inspired me to not round off the edges of my characters so much, to let them be unpleasant or angry sometimes,” she says, remembering one short story in which a man who is a vegetarian recalls hearing plants crying.
Now, as an established author who receives fan mail from her own readers, Henry follows in the footsteps of the person who, she says, made her feel like “a real writer.” She responds to every letter and e-mail she receives, and spends time talking to budding writers whom she meets during school visits. One of the more touching letters Henry has received was from a boy in Georgia who was so enthused by her response to his original correspondence that he wrote back, “I felt like you probably did when Roald Dahl responded to you: amazed that I was talking to my favorite author ever!” (He’d learned about Henry’s correspondence with Dahl on her Web site.)
The letters that resonate most with Henry, though, are the ones from kids who admit that they don’t like to read, but love her books. “I want to capture those kids who haven’t discovered that reading is a wonderful escape,” she says. “It makes me more conscious of how I can write to appeal to those readers.”
So, whatever happened to Henry’s story about the peanut butter-loving frog? Shortly after Dahl’s postcard arrived, she received a letter from a British children’s magazine asking permission to publish it, but Henry never did see it in print. Ever since she has been attempting to track down a copy of the magazine, which she believes was the Puffin Post. “Who knows – maybe the editor asked to publish it but never did,” Henry says.
Regardless of her story’s fate, the mere fact of Dahl's recognition made a lasting impression on Henry. “At the time, I thought of him as my friend,” she says. “I didn’t even stop to think that he’d probably received hundreds of letters and stories.”