Booklist vs. Roald Dahl: Who’s Laughing Now?

Booklist's reject card for James and the Giant Peach (click to enlarge)

Booklist’s reject card for James and the Giant Peach (click to enlarge)

“Ghoulish, sordid, and the product of a depraved mind!” writes one reviewer. “I haven’t finished but I don’t like the effect,” opines another. Doesn’t sound very much like a recipe for success, does it? But those hot takes were among Booklist’s responses to Roald Dahl’s first two full-length works for children, James and the Giant Peach (1961) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964).

We didn’t review either of those. And while we did find room for his now mostly forgotten picture-book, The Magic Finger (1966), illustrated by the great William Pène du Bois, we also declined to review Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970) and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972)—no reasons given for those abstentions.

Somehow, despite the best efforts of Booklist, Dahl managed to have a career anyway, going on to become one of the best-loved and best-selling storytellers of all time. His books have inspired movies (including Steven Spielberg’s The BFG), musicals (the Tony Award–winning Matilda), and countless other authors. September 13 would have been his 100th birthday, and Penguin Young Readers and the Dahl literary estate are pulling out all the stops to help fans celebrate.

We were correct about one thing:
Dahl did have a depraved mind.

Yet Booklist, back in the day, always had a complicated relationship with the man’s work. Of the twenty-two children’s fiction and poetry books we received for review, ten were reviewed and nine rejected outright. (I couldn’t find any record of another three, including titles such as Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator and Matilda.)

We rejected The Twits (1981) as “obnoxious,” dismissed George’s Marvelous Medicine (1981) as “not funny,” and thought the rhymes in Revolting Rhymes (1983) were simply “bad.”

George's Marvelous Medicine reject in situ

Before you rush to judgment and give us your own bad review, I should note that, aside from the odd misstep (including, ahem, Charlotte’s Web), Booklist actually has a terrific track record for identifying the books that have gone on to win hearts, minds, and awards—and have for decades. Back then, though, it was a slightly different story.

Booklist has always been a recommend-only review journal, meaning we typically only review what we can recommend for purchase. In the depths of the twentieth century, mirroring attitudes then popular in librarianship, our forebears took a proscriptive approach and only recommended books they deemed worthy of readers. In today’s society, where some preteens attend R-rated movies, it’s hard to remember how delicate young minds were once thought to be.

Over time, Booklist’s attitude has evolved along with librarians’ and we now regularly recommend books based on anticipated reader demand. Even if our reviewer doesn’t personally like a book, it can still be recommended for the simple reason that we know lots of people will want to read it.

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

Despite early antipathy, Booklist’s attitude toward Dahl did evolve, and we did praise some of his better books. Former Booklist children’s editor Barbara Elleman was generally complimentary toward my favorite Dahl book, Danny, Champion of the World (1976), and Ilene Cooper called The BFG (1982) “highly unusual, often hilarious.”

But Ilene probably summed up Dahl best in her review of The Witches (1983), when she wrote: “Roald Dahl is like the girl with the curl on her forehead. When his writing is good, it’s very very good; and when it is bad, it’s horrid.” (For the record, she called The Witches “very good.”)

Dahl was uneven. And some of his later efforts were lazy and bad. So we weren’t wrong all the time. And even when we were wrong, we were still kind of right. While we may have missed the kid appeal of James and The Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we were correct about one thing: Dahl did have a depraved mind. (If you’ve read his adult fiction, you’ll know even more how true that is.) We were just wrong about how much that mattered. An author’s depraved mind is hardly a reason to keep his weird, irreverent, and fantastical books from kids.

The passage of time renders all book reviews irrelevant. And Booklist’s halting start with one of the BFGs of children’s literature hardly kept him from meeting his destiny as a beloved author. Still, as a 100th birthday present to the late Mr. Dahl, it only seems fitting that we finally offer the first-ever Booklist reviews of James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, and Matilda. Click on the book covers to read our reviews. Happy Belated Birthday, Roald Dahl!

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl
Matilda by Roald Dahl


Finally, here’s an almost-complete bibliography that includes adult titles, books about Dahl, and his justly popular autobiographical works.

Children’s Fiction

The Umbrella Man and Other Stories (1998)
My Year (1994)
The Vicar of Nibbleswicke (1992)
The Minpins (1991) [audiobook]
Esio Trot (1990) [audiobook]
Danny the Champion of the World by Roald DahlMatilda (1988)
The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me (1985) [audio]
The Witches (1983)
The BFG (1982)
The Twits (1981)
George’s Marvelous Medicine (1981) [audio]
Danny, the Champion of the World (1975)
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970)
The Magic Finger (1966)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)
James and the Giant Peach (1961)


Vile Verses (2005)
Rhyme Stew (1990)
Revolting Rhymes (1983)


Skin and Other Stories (2000)

Boy Tales of Childhood by Roald DahlMemoir

Going Solo (1986) [audiobook]
Boy: Tales of Childhood (1984) [audiobook]


Roald Dahl’s Even More Revolting Recipes (2001)
The Mildenhall Treasure (2000)
Memories with Food at Gipsy House (1991)


The Roald Dahl Treasury (1997)

Kiss Kiss by Roald DahlAdult Books

Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life (1990)
Two Fables (1985)
Switch Bitch (1974)
Kiss Kiss (1960)
Someone Like You (1953)
Some Time Never (1948)
Over To You (1946)

Books about Roald Dahl for Kids

Roald Dahl, by Jane Bingham (2009)
Gift of Imagination: The Story of Roald Dahl, by LeeAnne Gelletly (2006)
Roald Dahl: Author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Michelle H. Houle (2006)
D Is for Dahl: A Gloriumptious A-Z Guide to the World of Roald Dahl, by Wendy Cooling (2005)
Roald Dahl: The Champion Storyteller, by Andrea Shavick (1998)

The Irregulars by Jennet ConantBooks about Roald Dahl for Adults

Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother, edited by Donald Sturrock (2016)
Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl, by Donald Sturrock (2010)
The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington, by Jennet Conant (2008) [audio]
Roald Dahl, by Jeremy Treglown (1994)
Roald Dahl, by Mark I. West (1992)



About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

Post a Comment