My Life In Books: James and the Giant Peach

I think all children should read Roald Dahl. His children’s books are entertaining, imaginative and just a touch dark. It’s an ideal combination.

I confess I haven’t read them all. The first one I encountered was JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH and it was read to the class by my teacher in junior school. I think I was about seven years old.

Roald Dahl was fond of making orphans out of his main characters by having their parents meet horrendously violent deaths. Young James is orphaned when his parents are eaten by a rampaging escaped rhino, and he is sent to live with his two ghastly aunts, who turn him into a slave, beat him for no reason and make him sleep on the floor in the attic. Then James meets a strange old man who gives him a sack of crocodile tongues and turns his life around. While carrying the sack home, James trips over a tree root and the crocodile tongues spill into the tree roots. The following day an enormous peach appears on the tree, that keeps on growing until it breaks free and rolls away, squashing the two ghastly aunts flat on the way. James ends up inside the peach with a group of six-foot tall insects, and they all have a fantastic adventure.

I like the way Dahl pulls no punches when it comes to exposing children to the harsh unpleasantries of life – death; violence; and so on. And yet there is a justice to the darkness: everyone who is a nasty person gets their just desserts in the end, and the courageous young protagonist who has endured much tragedy and hardship ends up in a much better place by the end. All James wants is friends, something his aunts denied him by not letting him meet other children. At the end of the novel, James lives out the rest of his life in the hollowed-out peach stone in Central Park, and the world famous status he has earned because of his adventures allows him to have all the friends he wants.

I wonder if Dahl would get away these days with writing such violent books for children. Apparently JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH has had its share of critics over the years: according to Wikipedia, it is #56 on the American Library Association’s list of books most frequently threatened with censorship.

Children haven’t changed all that much – they are often more resilient than people think – but society has, and seems to feel the need to shield them from everything nasty and unpleasant in the world. Apparently in the 1996 film version of this book – which I haven’t seen – James’s ghastly aunts are not killed by the peach, but instead chase him all over New York before being taken away by the police. Somehow, this seems an unsatisfactory ending. As a seven-year-old I was rather pleased that the ghastly Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker met an unpleasant death. After all the horrid things they did to make James’s life so miserable, I would have felt that merely being arrested was not punishment enough.

I have a memory of a 1970s musical adaptation of JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH on British TV, featuring Bernard Cribbins – more recently known as Donna Noble’s grandfather in ‘Dr Who’, but in those days he was a well known children’s TV presenter – as the centipede. But an Internet search has produced no reference to it. I’m fairly sure I didn’t imagine it. I remember the two ghastly aunts being squashed flat by the peach, and ended up as cardboard cut-outs. Death was acceptable for kids in those days. Excessive gore was not.

Happily, Roald Dahl’s books are still in print and still being read by kids today. As long as they are, there’s still hope for the next generation.

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