by Roald Dahl

illustrated by Quentin Blake

London: Jonathan Cape, 1988

240 pp. – 21 chapters

Age: 6+

Interests: kids who are bookworms, school, magic, psychic powers, revenge!

Also by this author: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches

It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.

So begins Matilda, in typical Roald Dahl fashion. This is a sly and very modern story about a precocious reader named Matilda (she’s reading Dickens at four) with crass, dim, mean-spirited parents who don’t understand her. (Her parents are direct opposites of the parents of the opening line.) Matilda has to hide her reading habit from them in fact, as they don’t approve of it, preferring TV to books. When she starts school, her lovely teacher Miss Honey immediately sees her abilities, which include unexpected psychic powers. The only thing that prevents school from being a wonderful experience is the evil principal Miss Trunchbull, who terrorizes students and teachers alike. From mischievous pranks pulled on her parents to the final dramatic victory over Miss Trunchbull, tiny little Matilda finds a way to redress wrongs and improve her own and Miss Honey’s situations.

Children will enjoy this upside-down world, of parents who promote TV and fish and chips over books and vegetables. Mr. Wormwood sells used cars, defrauding his customers and bragging to his children about it. Mrs. Wormwood leaves little Matilda home alone as she goes out to play bingo every afternoon, during which time the 4-year-old toddles over to the public library all by herself and teaches herself to read. When her parents’ insults get Matilda down, she comes up with devious means of revenge, like crazy glue in her father’s hat, or peroxide in his hair oil.

When Matilda begins school she comes face to face with a far more challenging adversary in the school principal. Miss Trunchbull is an outstanding villain in children’s literature – from her green stockinged, muscular calves to her bulldog face. She was once a champion of the hammer throw, and indeed flings one child right out of the schoolyard in perfect hammer-throwing form. And, naturally , she despises children.

In comparison, Miss Honey is the most saintly and perfectly empathetic of teachers, though perhaps too timid, as Matilda finds out later in the book. There is only one way to solve Miss Honey’s predicament and set the children at the school free – defeat Miss Trunchbull once and for all. Plans for this victory are greatly aided as Matilda discovers she has the power to move things with her mind.

The humour is sharp, the action violent, and the language, in the ways the children talk to each other, lurid and entirely believable. Children will love this book, as it’s about bad and foolish parents, nice and clever children, school politics, revenge, and the underdog coming out on top. Parents will like it too for the emphasis on the value of learning to read.

(This title on amazon.)

Related: BBC Radio essay about Matilda, by Anthony Horowitz


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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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