Roald Dahl knew how important it was to make his readers laugh. We take a look in the Roald Dahl archive for some mischief and humour...
I believe that the writer for children must be a jokey sort of fellow
Roald believed that, unlike most adults, he had retained the ability to think like children and therefore to write books that would appeal to them. His books are famous for their mischievous humour and outlandish, crazy characters. Roald was very conscious of the need to make his readers laugh: even when the children in his books risk getting squittered by witches or eaten alive by enormous crocodiles, he always took care to make his stories funny.
He once listed the attributes of a children’s writer and the qualities needed in children’s books:
"I believe that the writer for children must be a jokey sort of fellow…He must like simple tricks and jokes and riddles and other childish things…He must know what enthrals children and what bores them. They love being spooked. They love suspense. They love action. They love ghosts. They love the finding of treasure. They love chocolate and toys and money. They love magic. They love being made to giggle."
This understanding of what appealed to children was always central to his writing, and it was coupled with his own self-professed childish sense of fun. Roald’s fondness for jokes is evident from an early age. Looking at the letters he sent his mother and sisters while he was at school, we see that Roald was a child who liked pranks, riddles and silly humour.
In the archives here at the Museum, we have the letter sent to his mother for 1 April 1927, with just the words ‘APRIL FOOL’ scrawled across the page. He would gleefully recount funny events at school, honing the skills of storytelling that he would later bring to crafting his adult and children’s novels. However, his silly side did nothing to endear himself to his teachers – in one school report, his science master describes the 14 year old Roald as having ‘fits of childishness’ and that he needed to grow up!
His eye for a funny anecdote developed as he grew older, and his time spent abroad as an adult gave him plenty of opportunity to practice his storytelling in his letters home, which he combined with a dry sense of humour and an enjoyment of slapstick. One letter to his mother, written in 1944, tells of the foul-smelling Winston, a bulldog that Roald had agreed to look after for a friend.
This smelly hound grunted, farted with gusto and generally caused huge embarrassment wherever he went, much to poor Roald’s discomfort. However, it is also clear that he found the episode hugely funny, and he would later use the taboo subject of farts to create one of the best known features of The BFG: the delicious drink Frobscottle, and its after-effect of whizzpopping!
Above: "He farted continuously and with great gusto." Letter home written in 1944.
Roald would also use unpleasant or disgusting humour such as with the foul and revolting Twits. He did this deliberately to appeal to children’s sense of humour because he realised that if they were made to laugh, they would keep reading.
One of his passions was to encourage children to read and love books. He believed that children who adopted the habit of reading when young would continue to read as adults, and he considered it part of his job as a writer to make ‘young readers laugh and squirm and enjoy the story’. Ultimately, he would stress this was the most important part of writing books for children – that no matter what the plot or whoever the characters, the ‘book had got to be funny’.
Here at the Museum, our mission is to continue Roald’s aims of encouraging laughter, creating and telling stories – and sometimes just being childish! Pffft!