It seems pretty typical for children to go through a stage of being fascinated with the grotesque, the grisly and the macabre. (Some, of course, remain in that stage even as adults, which is why horror is a vibrant genre outside of children’s literature.) For young readers, however, there is a particular appeal in finding books that satisfy this fascination without being overwhelmingly horrifying or scary. Roald Dahl’s books provide an entire sub-genre of this sort of material. He creates worlds that are simultaneously fanciful and gruesome, where children face awful threats yet manage to emerge victorious.
When I went through my brief stage of enjoying grotesque things, my favorite Road Dahl books were The BFG and Matilda. It’s not too surprising to note that they both feature female protagonists. Sophie, the heroine who becomes acquainted with the Big Friendly Giant, is appealing enough – thoughtful, sensitive and resourceful, creating a plan to defeat the malicious giants who terrorize children. It was Matilda Wormwood, however, who really delighted me.
Young readers will find it fairly easy to identify with her. She loves books and the escape they provide. She reads through the entire children’s section of the library before kindergarten. She is excited about school and adores her supportive teacher, Miss Honey, but quickly becomes bored when the material isn’t enough to challenge her. She has no support at home, so she must take her own initiative and find helpful resources elsewhere. And for the people who belittle her, underestimate her, and bully her, she finds some truly delightful ways to retaliate.
As with many of Dahl’s stories, the villains are absurd caricatures – her father, a blustering, vain, deceitful used car salesman; her mother, neglectful, lazy and empty-headed; and most of all Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress who literally flings children around and tortures them with all sorts of appallingly cruel punishments. It’s unlikely a real life child would encounter adults quite so cartoonishly awful as this (let’s certainly hope not!) but they are effective exaggerations of what a child can feel when the grown-ups in their lives are unsupportive or even antagonistic. It’s very satisfying to watch a child get the better of them.
For Matilda is brilliant to the point of supernatural powers. Without an ordinary outlet for her intelligence, she discovers that her mental energies can be funneled into straight-up telekinesis. And she uses this power to defeat the evil Miss Trunchbull and give Miss Honey the justice she deserves. A kindergartener saving the day with a super-powered brain? There’s a pretty apt fantasy for gifted children to indulge in. It takes place amid a truly dreadful world of abusive parents and violent authority figures, yet it is those horrors that make Matilda’s victory all the more satisfying, and all the more reassuring for children trying to make sense of an ordinary world that sometimes seems just as terrifying.