Roald Dahl loved telling bedtime stories to his children, and one of their favourites was about a family of foxes who lived under a huge beech tree at the top of their garden.
When he was asked by his publisher to write a simple picture book story for very young children, Roald decided to use his fox family and their adventures as inspiration.
He hadn’t done a picture book before and found it difficult to imagine how the book would look. So after he had written his first draft on his usual yellow paper, Roald decided to create a rough book version. In his usual pragmatic style, he cut out typed pieces of text, stuck them into a sketch book, and drew his own simple sketches of the foxes.
However, the format of the book wasn’t the only thing that was different – Roald’s initial story had the foxes stealing from supermarkets!
In this first version, Mrs Fox wants for a better life for herself, wishing for a home full of furniture, plates and cups and delicious food. Without further ado, Mr Fox (and the four little Foxes) start digging a tunnel, while Mrs Fox starts digging out new rooms in their den – a dining room, kitchen and living area.
Mr Fox tunnels from the woods up to the town, going right under the main street (Roald imagined his home village of Great Missenden for this) – and comes up in the supermarket! After waiting for the shop to shut, he and the Little Foxes creep out into the store, and go wild with joy when they see the glorious goodies on show – cake, nuts, pies, candy – and beef and lamb, pork and ham!
They seize shopping trolleys and load them up, before heading back to Mrs Fox.
The story doesn’t stop there. Mr Fox realises that all the shops on the Main Street have goodies they could use, so he digs branch tunnels and the Fox Family have access to ice boxes and ovens, plates and tables and chairs. The story ends with the Foxes tucking into a magnificent feast in their beautiful new home. Of course, the shopkeepers have no idea where their goods are disappearing to!
Roald was very pleased with this story, but his publishers didn’t like it, pointing out that a tale about foxes stealing from shops wasn’t a good message for children. However, then Roald’s editor Fabio Coen came up with a crafty idea worthy of Mr Fox himself.
Fabio pointed out that the story lacked villains - although there are farmers trying to shoot the foxes in an early draft, they aren’t given any other role in the story. So Fabio suggested making the farmers really nasty characters who are trying to kill the foxes, and then having the foxes steal from them, rather than from the innocent shopkeepers.
Roald loved this idea and wrote an enthusiastic letter back to Fabio thanking him and promising to get to work revising the story straight away.
Roald eventually decided to drop the picture book idea, and rewrote the story, now provisionally called ‘Boggis, Bunce and Bean’ after the dastardly farmers, for older children. Eventually it was published, not with the farmers’ names, but with the name of the crafty, cunning and fantastic Mr Fox.
You can see Roald’s original sketches and manuscript drafts on display here at the Roald Dahl Museum this summer, as well as our special exhibition Imagining Fantastic Mr Fox, celebrating the different faces of Mr Fox over the past 50 years.
Imagining Fantastic Mr Fox at the Roald Dahl Museum is open until mid-September 2021. The exhibition is included in the cost of a Museum ticket; all visitors must book in advance for Museum entry.