Roald Dahl: my hero

'He was one of the first writers who can be read and enjoyed by children to show us adults in familiar, everyday situations failing spectacularly, grotesquely and exaggeratedly in this job of nurture'

I was teaching an MA seminar on children's literature when a rather severe Latvian student dived into a discussion about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by stating: "Roald Dahl – no literary merit whatsoever." Immediately, a young London primary school teacher retorted with stories of how the children in her class, many of whom wouldn't read of their own accord, loved Dahl's books, roaring with laughter and amazement as she read them out loud. The Latvian woman didn't change her expression at all, and repeated: "Roald Dahl – no literary merit whatsoever."

I'm too old to have read him as a child, so my encounters with both his life and his work have been as a parent. I'm of the view that what we call children's books are interventions in society's debate about bringing up children, and Dahl entered this debate through literature with passion and commitment. The result was that he was one of the first writers who can be read and enjoyed by children to show us adults in familiar, everyday situations failing spectacularly, grotesquely and exaggeratedly in this job of nurture.

Dahl knew what he was doing, remarking that we both love and hate our parents, even if we don't admit it to ourselves. He also knew that to engage the child in this conflict, the child had to care deeply about the fate of the children in the book. He achieved this through a series of tricks and schemes that surprise, horrify and disgust us.

Dahl's own life was in one sense privileged, but in another beset with cruelty, tragedy and pain. He responded to these challenges with astounding ingenuity and heroism, mingled with gruffness and fun. As an alternative to weeping, his books and his life offer me, for one, the example of a crazy, hyperbolic route through.

Fantastic Mr Dahl by Michael Rosen is published by Puffin on 13 September. To celebrate Roald Dahl Day, Michael Rosen will be taking part in an interactive webcast with Quentin Blake on 24 September. Register at puffinvirtuallylive.co.uk

Contributor

Michael Rosen

The GuardianTramp

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