Friday 13 September 2013 is Roald Dahl Day. It falls on the anniversary of his birthday; he would have been ninety-eight. Celebrated today as one of the great British children's authors of the twentieth century, his work is remembered fondly as part of that period of life which is playful, carefree and unburdened by adult responsibility. The names of Dahl's children's books are so much a part of our cultural heritage that they hardly need mentioning and, as can be seen by recent stage and screen adaptations (Tim Minchin's wonderful musical of Matilda, or Tim Burton's darkly funny adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) they still retain their cultural currency.
The fond remembrances which attach themselves to Dahl's work today seem evident of a nostalgia that is more generally associated with adult reconstructions of childhood than the actuality of childhood itself. Indeed, the representation of Dahl's overwhelmingly positive place as part of the 'establishment' of children's fiction belies the sometimes negative reception of his work at the time of its publication. Most notable of these appeared in the pages of The Horn Book Magazine in 1972. Eleanor Cameron's article 'McLuhan, Youth and Literature, Part 1' contains a damning review of Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The book is reviled for its literary technique, its condescending tone and its superficial morality. Cameron tells us that 'The book is like candy...in that it is delectable and soothing while we are undergoing the brief sensory pleasure it affords but leaves us poorly nourished with our taste dulled for better fare'. The ferocity of Cameron's attack demonstrates that, for her (and for many others), it matters what our children read. Her chief complaint is that the book, rather than nurturing and stimulating the child's imagination, stunts its development.
It's worth pausing here to consider the nature of Cameron's complaints against Charlie. The vehemence of her ire is not so much to do with the book and its content but is a result of the adult author neglecting his responsibility to his child reader. A children's book, Cameron is saying, must be morally responsible as it plays an important part in socialising the child and aiding his/her cultural development. Dahl's crime is not that he has written a bad book, but that he has written a harmful one. Eleanor Cameron's criticisms, therefore, are based upon what she sees as the function of the children's book. Its purpose here must be something more than mere frippery or vacuous entertainment.
But Dahl's stories are much more than mere frippery: the children of his fictions are clever, resourceful, cunning and often much misunderstood. Dahl celebrates their ingenuity, quick-wittedness and capacity for mischief with an irreverence that questions adult authority and its control over children and childhood. It's perhaps this disrespect for the order of things, his emphasis on laughter and mayhem as a fundamental of his fiction that attracts controversy because of its challenge to convention. What's heartening to see in the call to celebrate Dahl's stories, is not a desire to reconstruct a false image of Dahl's works but to emphasise their urge towards misrule. This is a legacy that lives on in the pages of children's literature today. Winners of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize such as Andy Stanton's Mr Gum books or Jamie Thomson's Dark Lord: The Teenage Years attest to that. If it matters what our children read (and it does) then the fact that Dahl's influence still reverberates today shows that we value diversity in literature for the child.