Born on September 13, 1916, Roald Dahl masterfully demonstrated the boundless possibilities of imagination and humor in his fiction for children. Penguin Young Readers Group and the Roald Dahl Literary Estate are marking the centennial of his birth with a yearlong “fantabulous” (in Dahl-speak, a fusion of fantastic and fabulous) commemoration. The Roald Dahl 100 campaign encompasses reissues of Dahl classics in paperback and hardcover editions featuring Quentin Blake’s iconic illustrations; the Splendiferous Showdown, a touring live trivia show starring the Story Pirates; celebratory gatherings at bookstores, zoos, botanical gardens, and other venues; and food-related events that pay homage to Dahl’s famous keenness for sweets. And Oxford University Press is joining the centenary hoopla with its September release of Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary by Susan Rennie, with pictures by Blake.
Born of Norwegian parents in Cardiff, Wales, Dahl spent his childhood in England, served in the RAF during World War II, and began writing stories for children in 1960. He lived in the U.S. for a number of years, and two of his best-loved novels, James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, were inspired by American culture. The books found a large readership in this country before moving on to become global bestsellers. Today, Dahl’s novels are available in 58 languages and have sold, by conservative estimate, more than 200 million copies.
Puffin kicked off the Roald Dahl 100 celebration at the beginning of the year with new paperback editions of 15 novels featuring a uniform cover design and Blake’s art. In July, the imprint published a movie tie-in edition of The BFG (with a 500,000-copy announced first printing) to coincide with the release of the Steven Spielberg film based on this novel. And due in September are collectible hardcover editions of Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and the Glass Elevator, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and James and the Giant Peach.
A 26-year veteran of Penguin, Puffin president and publisher Eileen Bishop Kreit is well versed in the appeal of Roald Dahl’s oeuvre, having spent the first decade of her tenure with the company in sales. Calling Dahl “a pillar of our publishing program,” Kreit shared her perspective on the author’s literacy legacy. “He was such a natural storyteller, and though his humor could hover on the edge of darkness, there is always positivity and hope, which give readers the confidence and empowerment to become champions of their own stories and lives,” she said. “The power of Dahl’s imagination is just incredible, and is one of the key reasons that kids, parents, teachers, and librarians immediately latch on to his writing. I am convinced that Dahl honestly believed that one day every child in the world will unleash the extraordinary through his or her own imagination.”
Showcasing a Lively Lexicon
The author’s imagination plays out in his signature wordplay and vocabulary, which provided the inspiration for the 8,000-entry Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary. “Dahl invented hundreds of words and played with language by introducing blends, onomatopoeia, malapropisms, and spoonerisms,” said Oxford University Press publisher Vineeta Gupta of the origins of the reference, which took five years to compile. “Children are inspired by the language of Roald Dahl, yet his words are not covered in standard dictionaries.”
For the book’s author, Susan Rennie, tackling Dalhisms entailed “a lot of creative thinking and experimentation, but was the most rewarding project I have worked on precisely because of that. It’s not often that you get the chance as a lexicographer to define a word for the very first time – think snozzcumber, humplecrimp, wraprascal – so that was a real treat, as well as a challenge.”
Another pleasant if tricky task, Rennie said, was making sure the reference’s tone kept Dahl’s spirit in the forefront, which meant sometimes being “a bit mischievous in our definitions.” Encouraged by the curators of the Roald Dahl Literary Estate, who “were brilliant keeping us on track and at times urged us to be a bit more subversive,” Rennie and her team proceeded with Dahlesque playfulness: the entry for “Esio Trot” is written backwards, the definition for “limerick” is itself a limerick, and the entry for “upside down” is printed—well, no need to elaborate.
Dahl would likely be pleased to know that Rennie also got inspiration help from one of his own characters. “While writing the dictionary, I always tried to think of Matilda reading it,” she recalled. “I wanted it to be a book that she would pick up and want to keep reading, because there would be something to interest her on every page – and also to make her laugh, as she has a mischievous sense of humor too!”
Dahl as Dad
Ophelia Dahl, the fourth of five children born to Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal, the late American actress, came to appreciate her father’s indefatigable imagination and humor from an early age. In a conversation with PW, she recalled that “every evening without fail” he would tell his children bedtime stories, some featuring characters who later appeared in his novels. “He was always reaching into his imagination and telling us stories, but it never felt like he was testing anything on us,” she recalled. “Though I’m sure he did pick up on our reactions – and took note when we said, ‘Don’t stop now – carry on!’ ”
Dahl’s daughter noted that his imagination was an integral force in the lives of his children, well beyond the nightly storytelling sessions. “It was simply part of the way he was, and the way he lived his life,” she said. “If we were riding in a car, he’d make up poems and encourage us to do so as well. There was something infectious about it, and I think he knew that imagination is a powerful tool that we’d be able to use all our lives.”
Her father’s belief in the restorative power of imagination has helped shape her personal and professional goals. In 1987, Dahl, a social justice and health care advocate, cofounded (with Dr. Paul Farmer) Partners in Health, a charity that works with local governments and health providers to bring high-quality health care to poor communities in 10 countries. Partners in Health is a beneficiary of a percentage of the proceeds from some of the events planned to celebrate Roald Dahl 100. “One of the things that drew me to Paul Farmer is that he shared my father’s belief in using imagination for the benefit of others,” she said. “My father did that on the literary side, and Paul Farmer does it by imagining and working for a better future for others.”
And, Dahl added, her father’s confidence in the importance of humor is also a key component of his legacy. “As he grew older, he never became curmudgeonly – he remained playful and childlike, though not childish,” she recalled. “He never spoke down to or patronized readers. He knew that humor can be a powerful tool to help others through difficult times, and he sought out people who needed it. And that has stayed with me.”
The Birthday Bandwagon Rolls On
For those eager to take part in Roald Dahl 100 celebrations, here are some highlights of next month’s festivities; additional information is available online.
The Roald Dahl Splendiferous Showdown: Traveling in a bus shrink-wrapped with the Roald Dahl 100 logo, the Story Pirates will visit 26 schools and three arts centers in 24 cities throughout September, performing an interactive live trivia show inspired by Dahl’s storytelling – and young audience members’ input. The touring troupe debuts at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass, on September 10.
Wondercrump Weekend: Kicking off September 16, this worldwide initiative encourages schools, libraries, bookstores, and other groups to host Roald Dahl 100th birthday parties with the help of activity packs that fans can download online.
Dahlicious Delights: For those who share Dahl’s sweet tooth, dessert companies and retail outlets across the country will sell sweet treats inspired by his novels throughout September. A sampling of participating eateries: Ample Hills Creamery, Four & Twenty Blackbirds, Baked, and Baked Ideas in New York City; The Pie Hole, Coolhaus, Milk Jar Cookies, and Knuckle & Claw (co-owned by Dahl’s granddaughter, Chloe Dahl) in Los Angeles; Flour Bakery, J.P. Licks, and Union Square Donuts in Boston; and Craftsman and Wolves in San Francisco.
Buckswashling Nature: Zoos and botanic gardens throughout the country will celebrate Dahl’s love of love of nature and animals with children’s programming during September. Participating venues include the Memphis Botanic Garden, Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, the Dallas Arboretum, and the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.