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Kids' Book Club: Fantastic Mr Fox By Roald Dahl

20/06/2012 10:15 | Updated 22 May 2015

Apparently, Fantastic Mr Fox was Roald Dahl's favourite of his own books, and it's one his fans adore, too. This is certainly not one of his scariest novels; it's not likely to give small children nightmares, like The Witches. And it's not as magical as, for instance, The BFG.

But it's a Dahl classic, pitting grotesque adult characters - the revolting farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean - against merrily irreverent, cunning heroes - Mr Fox and his fellow burrowers - in a viscerally violent moral fable.

Listen to Dahl himself reading the story aloud, and the author's acidic, acerbic style comes through.

The nature world of Fantastic Mr Fox is not a sweet idyll. It's dog-eat-dog - or rather fox-eat-chicken and man-kill-fox.

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Maybe that's why Dahl has always been so popular with young people - he doesn't patronise them; he tells it like it is.

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As a children's story, this is more a dry martini than a sugar-coated fairy-cake. The evil farmers are out to kill Mr Fox and his family and they destroy the landscape with monstrous diggers and shoot with guns: '...Bang! Bang-bang-bang!' But unfortunately for them, Mr Fox isn't the victim type - he's a crafty, rather dapper and dashing fellow, who outwits the men with aplomb, to the adoration of Mrs Fox, the four small foxes (who Dahl doesn't need to name), and all the other animals who scavenge underground.

There's no sentimentality whatsoever for the 'stupid' chickens Mr Fox slyly selects for his feast with his glistening white teeth. But, as always with Dahl, there is an emphatic moral thread nonetheless - Foxy kills the chickens instantly so they do not suffer; and he explains to Badger that stealing from the farmers to feed their young isn't a crime: "We're not going to stoop to their level...we down here are decent, peace-loving people."

When you reread Dahl's books in adulthood, you realise just how brittle they are and how bravely he flaunted the safe, cosy traditions of the children's novel in a way we now take for granted in modern children's literature.

You could even say Dahl did for children's books what Quentin Tarantino did for film.

In Mr Fox, there's bad manners (Mr Fox "let fly a tremendous belch"), and there's drunkenness (nasty alcoholic Rat shrieking "Shut up!" and the Smallest Fox getting sozzled on cider, and there's greed ("the sound of crunching and chewing as the animals attacked the succulent food").

But this only intensifies the pathos of the love the Fox family show one another, the eagerness of the small foxes to survive and their generosity for their guests.

Published in 1970, this was one of Roald Dahl's first children's books - luckily, he went on to write many more which we'll cover another time...fantastic.

Fantastic Mr Fox is published by Puffin (£4.99).

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