Roald Dahl, My Grandfather, and the Gift of Imagination

Roald Dahl in 1954 (from the Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress)

In elementary school, I had one job to do for the morning announcements: the birthdays.

It was a fun job. All I had to do was read a handful of names of kids or teachers who had been born on that day, with the occasional celebrity thrown in for good measure. I don’t remember the names of most of my classmates, and I couldn’t tell you which celebrities I wished a blithe happy birthday to in my one minute of fame each morning . . . except one.

Roald Dahl.

I was beyond honored to have the opportunity to read his name. I treated the two short syllables with reverence, and somehow, in my childish view, I thought he might actually hear my birthday wishes, and be touched.

Of course, he had died four years earlier. But that morning, my wide eyes looking sincerely into the camera as I bade him a happy birthday, I didn’t know that. His words were so alive that the idea he wasn’t had never occurred to me.

Roald Dahl would be 100 years old this September 13th. My grandfather would have been 87. Those two men who shared a birthday and never met were the biggest influences on me as a young writer.

I started writing letters to my grandfather because of a challenge. We’d taken an outing to Old Rhinebeck Aerodome when my family had driven up from Florida to visit my grandparents in Kingston, New York. My grandfather took photographs of the planes, including aerial shots of the ground spread below us when we got to go up in one. The photos were on a tiny disposable camera he’d bought just for the purpose, and I begged him to send me some when he got them developed.

“You have to write to me,” he’d said. “If you write to me, I’ll send them.”

Thus began our correspondence.

He loved to read any of my stories or poems, and so I would send them — a book of poetry about the seasons I’d put together in sixth grade, each page decorated in oil pastels of leaves or sunshine or snow, a sarcastic diatribe about working in groups, a serialized story about “Sara and the three dreams” that I no longer remember. I was reading Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon and A Little Princess and all I knew was that I wanted to tell Stories with a capital S.

My grandfather was a brilliant storyteller. He’d invented a personified plane called Little Pete, who would visit the children of the town and take them on magical adventures. The pilot, Reginald, would always run out of gas mid-way and land the plane in a strange new land, where the kids would have to be clever in order to figure out a way to get back home before their parents found out they were gone. The stories were an oral tradition in my mother’s house growing up, and mine, and now my kids, and there are grown-ups still living in Kingston who heard them when my mother babysat and now tell them to their kids. There was no written canon to Little Pete, and that was the beauty of it — the stories changed night to night, child to child.

I read Roald Dahl’s books aloud to my children. Right now we’re reading The Witches, and I do a series of voices — a lilting British accent for the boy narrator, a frankly more German-sounding accent for the Norwegian grandmother, a more strident German accent for the Grand High Witch, a lot of stuffy enunciated syllables for the hotel manager, and so on. I think all the best children’s books should inspire you to do voices.

After reading so many of Dahl’s books, as well as his short stories for adults, I often joke that he didn’t seem to like children very much. In his books, they’re greedy, impatient, stupid, or bratty, and they always get what’s coming to them. But not the main child. The main child in the story is always good and smart and kind, and he or she gets what’s coming to them, too — James lives with his friends in a peach pit and writes their story, Charlie gets the chocolate factory and rides up in the great glass elevator with his family and Mr. Wonka, Matilda gets to live with Miss Honey, who has escaped the terrorism of Miss Trunchbull.

These endings could feel saccharine or forced, but Dahl’s work is threaded with enough darkness that the light shines through in delicious contrast. In The Witches, for example, it ends with the narrator still in the mouse form that the witches have turned him into, but happy that he won’t have to live any longer than his grandmother. How’s that for dark?

My grandfather didn’t always appear to love children, either. He hated the noisiness of them — when my older brother and I would jump down the last few stairs at my grandparents’ house, landing with a thud on the creaky wood floor, my grandfather would curse from his favorite armchair. He could be critical, and impatient, and sardonic. He wasn’t always interested in justice if it meant he had to listen to you plead your case — he’d rather it be over than fair.

But from that moment when I wrote him back, he always made me feel like I was one of the main children in the story, the good ones who deserved luckiness and happiness and imagination. He encouraged my writing, but more than that, he treated me like I was already an author. He told me to submit essays to the radio for a “few bucks” and to “build a reputation.” He treated my hand-bound books like they were rare published tomes. When I was thirteen, I wrote a story about warring country club factions (the Lord of Lawn Bowling, the Prince of Polo, the something of Tennis that started with a T). It was rambling and silly but he read it, and wrote to me in a letter, typed in heavy block letters on his typewriter and folded six different times to fit in the envelope:

Your story is WONDERFUL and frightfully fanciful I suggest you don’t try to make any point but just let the flow of words and ideas cover the page until you feel it must stop and then you can say “and so it was!” which makes sense to me. Let other (sic) analyze and theorize and you can bob you (sic) head thoughtfully and neither agree or disagree. Think how many people you can make happy by just not agreeing or for that matter disagreeing. The country club and the 50,000 yr war indeed.

At the end of The BFG, perhaps my favorite Roald Dahl novel, he needs Sophie to encourage him to write the novel of their adventures. All the girls in my favorite novels about writers had a mentor, someone who kept them going even when they thought their dreams were petty or unattainable. Emily of Emily of New Moon had Cousin Jimmy to give her notebooks and Mr. Carpenter to curb her italics and dashes, and I had my grandfather. He would sometimes critique my work as if I were in a graduate fiction workshop but then turn around and pore over every new thing I sent him as if it were the latest serialization of his favorite story.

One of my favorite Dahl quotes is the last line of his very last children’s story, The Minpins: “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

Dahl and my grandfather taught me as a young girl to believe in magic. The first, through his whimsical stories, filled with made-up words and terrifyingly weird events and stupendous acts of bravery. The second, through his own way with words and the way he cared so deeply about mine.

My grandfather died four days after his 74th birthday. I had tried to call the nursing home where he was living, but hadn’t gotten through, so I never did get to wish him a happy birthday. But he always wanted me to keep writing, and he asked me to dedicate my first published book to him.

Happy birthday, Roald Dahl, and thank you for the magic.

Happy birthday, Grandpa Don, and thank you for everything.

I kept my promise.

Alicia Thompson is the author of YA novels and children’s books, including PSYCH MAJOR SYNDROME (Disney Hyperion) and THE GO-FOR-GOLD GYMNASTS series (Disney Hyperion). She has published short stories in GIRLS’ LIFE, a personal essay on her childhood adulation for (and later working relationship with) Dominique Moceanu for Narratively, and an essay about Tegan and Sara and sisterhood for GUTS.

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