Fat Books & Thin Women

Gushing: Roald Dahl’s Danny, The Champion of the World

It would be hard for me to choose just one of Roald Dahl’s books to label a “favorite,” but if I had to it would probably be Danny, The Champion of the World. When I was eight years old or whatever and read this novel for the first time I don’t remember being unduly impressed, but it’s a book that grows on me with the years. There are no witches, no giants, no speaking foxes, no chocolate factories, no glass elevators, just a father and his son, and that’s what makes this book so special. Unlike Dahl’s other children’s books this one is set firmly in the real world.

Danny’s mother died when he was four months old, and he’s since been raised by his father on a small plot of land on which they have a two-pump gas station, a one-car garage, and a gypsy caravan for living in. Danny starts school two years late, when he’s seven, because his father doesn’t want to send him off until he’s learned how to take a small engine apart and put it back together again; early on, his father says, “You know something, Danny? You must be easily the best five-year-old mechanic in the world” (15).

One night Danny wakes up to find that his father isn’t in the caravan, or in the garage, or in the outhouse. When his father gets home he reveals his greatest secret: that he’s a poacher and spent the night in Hazell’s Wood on an unsuccessful mission to steal a pheasant. The owner of Hazell’s Wood is this offensive, bloated, red-faced brewer who each year holds the best pheasant hunt in the country. It’s his one day of the year to feel important and liked by the people he wants to be in with, and for a bunch of very good reasons Danny and his father decide to pull off the greatest poaching expedition of all time.

Somehow the things I love about Roald Dahl I love even more when his story is so firmly set in our world. It’s not just that he can create these magical and awesome and funny stories about things like giants blowing dreams into children’s windows (the BFG makes an appearance in Danny, by the way), but that he can make the everyday seem just as funny and wonderful as a country full of loafing bone-crunching giants. Also that he never, ever censors this reality: I mean, he wrote this entire novel about a father and his son stealing pheasants. Of course Hazell deserves it – he’s the sort of person who digs tiger traps in his woods to catch poachers, risking breaking their necks to save his pheasants – and Danny and his father are clearly the moral victors here, but I can’t imagine most writers doing this.

Danny is a very funny book on top of all its other fine qualities, like when Danny tries to rethink poaching in the context of children’s games:

“Then how do we stop the keepers from seeing us?”

“Ah,” he said. “That’s the fun of the whole thing. That’s what it’s all about. It’s hide and seek. It’s the greatest game of hide and seek in the world.”

“You mean because they’ve got guns?”

“Well,” he said, “that does add a bit of flavor to it, yes.” (123)

Or when Danny is writing about his school and all its teachers, and brings up Mr. Snoddy, the headmaster:

He was a small round man with a huge scarlet nose. I felt sorry for him having a nose like that. It was so big and inflamed it looked as though it might explode at any moment and blow him up.

A funny thing about Mr. Snoddy was that he always brought a glass of water with him into class, and this he kept sipping right through the lesson. At least everyone thought it was a glass of water. Everyone, that is, except me and my best friend, Sidney Morgan. (103-104)

Of course Danny figures out why Mr. Snoddy has that inflamed nose and is such a careful hydrator!

Dahl gives us the good vs. bad, the poor vs. the rich, the first-time nine-year-old poacher being the one to figure out the Greatest Poaching Scheme of All Time, crawling around in woods, adventure, risk of “poacher’s bottom” (being peppered with buckshot on the retreat), but mostly this father-son relationship. Danny’s love for his father tumbles off every page of this book and I really, really love Dahl for writing this. And I’d like to thank whoever donated this book to my school’s library and made it possible for me to reread it. And I’d like to ask you to go to your library right now, this very second, and check out Danny, The Champion of the World: the greatest book of our time, or at least pretty high on the list.

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My Love Letter to Beverly Cleary

Maybe this isn’t the most nuanced statement, but whatever. Beverly Cleary is awesome, and she gets better the more I read her.

I grew up on Cleary. (Aside: some cats are fighting below my window, and they sound almost like people. When I first heard them I thought my host sister, Ava, was alerting me to her return from school.) Ramona, Beezus, Henry Huggins, Ribsy, Ellen Tebbits, and to a lesser extent Ralph S. Mouse, formed the backbone of my library when I was growing up. But unlike Roald Dahl, I didn’t reread Cleary’s books once I got old enough to read “grown-up books,” or whatever my eight-year-old self would label “old people books.”

And probably I would never have reread Cleary, and her books would have remained vague childhood memories of some mouse who rode a bicycle, or something, except that I made the fantastic decision (for my reading life, in any case) to put together an English-language library at my school. My moments of (frequent) doubt regarding this project are always assuaged when a new box of books arrives holding Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, or The Witches, or The Janitor’s Boy (by Andrew Clements, a first-time read, awesome), or Henry & Ribsy or The Mouse and the Motorcycle.

What strikes me now, what I don’t think I ever noticed when I was reading Cleary as an uncoordinated, chubby, leggings and wolf-imprinted t-shirt wearing eight-year-old, is how funny she is, and how spot-on her descriptions are. I should have written about this after reading The Mouse and the Motorcycle. In my endless dedication to actually getting books to my school in a timely fashion, I didn’t.

Lucky for me, then, and you (ha, ha) that I found a copy of Ribsy in the library yesterday. This is one of the Greatest Things to have happened to me in Macedonia, because Ribsy isn’t even one of the books I recruited for the library; one of my co-workers brought in a solid 100+ books over the school vacation. (Also including Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World. Yessssssss!)

Ribsy is written from the point of view of Henry Huggins’s dog, Ribsy. As I started to realize when reading about the adventures of Ralph S. Mouse, Cleary excels at writing about animals. She gives them enough human emotions and thoughts that you identify with them, but not so many that they ever stop seeming like animals; when she writes something like “Ribsy was what you might call a well-adjusted dog” (7) it’s funny because it’s such a human statement to make, but one that is entirely appropriate and correct given what we’ve learned of Ribsy’s friendly nature (keeping the mailman company, following Henry to school, greeting the milkman). Ribsy, who finds himself lost after hitting the power window button in the Huggins’s new station wagon and jumping out to chase a dog, travels through a world that is largely composed of smells (coffee, hot dogs, peanut butter sandwiches, that special boy smell possessed by Henry) and his attempts to find Henry by following those familiar sights (schools, mailman) that he associates with his boy and family.

Ribsy finds himself in the possession, briefly, of any number of people as he tries to find his way back to Henry. As the “mascot” of a second-grade class, Ribsy one day tries to chase a squirrel (brought in for show & tell) around the room. “Nothing that interesting had happened since Billy Amato had brought a live clam to school” (104). Cleary knows just when to leave something unexplained; the comic possibilities of a live clam in a second-grade class grows because it is mentioned so casually.

Near book’s end Ribsy ends up in an elevator, or, in his mind, “a small square room without windows” (168).

There was a whirring noise, and suddenly Ribsy had a feeling he had never felt before. He felt as if he was going up while his stomach stayed down. He did not like the feeling one bit. He did not like this strange little room. He wanted out right now. (168)

I am pretty sure that this is what a dog would feel on being left in a “frightening room that made him lose his stomach” (170). All of Cleary’s descriptions, like when Ribsy is trying to run away from the violet-scented bubble bath he’s been bathed with, are pitch-perfect.

Much of the reason I am so in love with Cleary, and Ribsy in particular (he’s always been one of my favorite characters of hers) is that he reminds me of my old dog, Sunny. Maybe she didn’t share his enthusiasm for boys, or playing football, or playing catch, but Cleary gets the essential nature of a mutt perfectly. Rereading Ribsy makes me feel a little closer to my own dog; in a perfect world, where dogs could tell us what they thought, I’m pretty sure they’d sound a lot like Ribsy.


Also, judging by this photo, it seems that Sunny was, like Ribsy, a “southpaw,” or “left-pawed.”

Judy Blume’s Time, and Respecting the Reader

Since I didn’t have a lot to do this summer, and my friend got a shipment of young adult books from her mother, I reread some of my childhood favorites. I should stress the “some” there, since the rereads were limited to Beverly Cleary (Henry and Ribsy! Ramona Quimby, Age 8!) and Judy Blume’s Fudge series.

Partway through the first book in the Fudge series I noticed something felt…different. I don’t expect to remember every detail of every book I’ve read in my life, but there are certain things, like references to the internet in a book written in the 1970’s or 80’s, that I can’t help but notice (and recoil from). These were books that I loved when I was growing up, that I read and reread; and to realize that Judy Blume, or her editor, has gone back into the book and added references to current technologies to bring the books “up to date” – well, is it really necessary?

Then there’s Double Fudge. My returns to young adult lit are unpredictable, so I hadn’t realized that Blume published another book in the Fudge series eight years ago. But here we have it, Peter Hatcher checking his email, playing games on his computer, and all.

Thirty years passed between the publications of the first Fudge book, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and the last, Double Fudge. It’s not worth my time to detail the changes, particularly in terms of technology, we’ve seen in that span; you already know.

Within the Fudge series, only a couple of years have passed in the lives of the Hatcher brothers. But behind them time, and technology, zips past, so that even as they are, personally, aged to 1973, the world is in 2002. And more, time is tweaked and edited behind them, certain details changed in order to give the sense that those boys from 1972 or 1973 are living similar lives to those of their readers in 2010.

My question is, simply: why? As a kid, I read hundreds of books, many with characters whose lives bore no similarity to my own, either because they were from a different culture or a different time period. And for me, this was interesting. It was a way to learn about the world, and to exercise my imagination. As far as I know, I wasn’t reading books that had been updated to more accurately depict the reader’s time period.

This is interesting to me in terms of how publishers and authors think their readers are interacting with the books; in some ways, it seems like an influence of a Wikipedia-fied world, in which information can be edited and updated on a whim. (If I want to come back and edit this blog entry in a day or a week or a year to make myself appear more intelligent, I can, and I will.) But one of the pleasures of books, for me, is that they DON’T change, textually. The novels I read as a child – or so I thought – would stay the same for all time, a marker for me to return to. Revisiting Superfudge or Fudge-a-Mania is about getting back to my own childhood as much as the childhoods of Peter and Fudge Hatcher, and if publishers are now taking the opportunity to edit and “update” novels in this fashion, how will today’s kids feel when they return to their favorite books twenty years from now? What will those books look like?

And more, how should an author treat characters she’s returning to twenty or thirty years after she initially wrote about them? I find it odd that Blume moved time forward around her characters; as someone with a mild case of chronophobia, I’m unsettled by the thought of an only partial shift of time, in which characters are not aged but the rest of the world is.

It also seems, much like the small edits and shiftings of time in the earlier Fudge books, to discount the creativity and imagination of readers. Do publishers (and authors) think kids can no longer imagine a world without internet?* That they won’t want to read “dated” books that were written, or appear to have been written, before their own births?

* Excluding here the fantasy genre – Harry Potter, Twilight, Tamora Pierce, which I take it have enough distractions, by their very nature, that the addition of the internet is unnecessary.