A Roald Dahl Reading List

The wonderful world of Roald Dahl is sharp, irreverent, sometimes violent, sometimes gross, and nearly always funny as hell. I’ve been reading all the Dahl I can get my mitts on lately. Here they are in the order I’d recommend reading them, from younger listeners to older.

(Clicking on the titles will take you to the full review of the book, if I’ve done one.)

Roald Dahl Reading List (in order of age)

1. Esio Trot (1990) – 62 pp.- Ages 4 +

The gentlest tale of all. No violence, no nastiness whatsoever. The story of how a shy older gentleman wins the lady of his dreams with ingenuity and a lot of tortoises. (This title on amazon.)

2. The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me (1985) – 80 pp. – Ages 4 +

A boy meets up with the new window-washers in town – a rather magical team of Giraffe, Pelican and Monkey. He helps them get their first job, which turns out to be a doozy. A burglar is captured, impressing the Duke of Hampshire and securing great success for all.

Burglar shoots off a gun while captured in the Pelican’s beak, creating a hole but not harming anybody. Other than that, nothing at all alarming. Worst of the language is “Damnation!” from the  Duke, who is rather blustery at the beginning. The insults don’t get any harsher than “you foolish creature”, from the Duke as well.

3. The Magic Finger (1964) – 63 pp. – Ages 4 +

A little girl teaches a family of hunters to see things from another point of view, by having them trade places with the birds they shoot at every day. Very funny. (This title on amazon.)

4. The Enormous Crocodile (1978) – 42 pp. – Ages 4 +

Very short and readable story about a crocodile with “secret plans and clever tricks.” Or so he thinks. The crocodile steals into the town intending to munch on children for lunch but the other jungle animals always call the alarm before he can succeed. In the end the elephant ejects the crocodile by flinging him all the way to the sun, where “he was sizzled up like sausage!”

The crocodile’s talk about crunching up small children might be too much for some, but it is all talk.

5. Danny the Champion of the World (1975) – 196 pp, 22 chapters – Ages 5 +

Danny lives with his father in an old gypsy caravan permanently parked beside the gas station they run. They are poor but totally happy. One night Danny finds out his father’s secret past – he used to poach pheasants from the land of the local nasty rich fellow. Danny learns about the secrets of poachers and devises a fantastic plan for the biggest pheasant heist ever… with very unexpected and hilarious results.

Little known book, totally sweet. Danny’s father is perhaps the most wonderful single parent ever written, even with his poaching past, and Danny is remarkably capable. A tale of class warfare, village life and a world long gone now. Much suspense during the poaching adventures, but without the broad violence of many of Dahl’s other books.  Highly recommended. (This title on amazon.)

Movie versions: Danny the Champion of the World (1989) – TV movie with Jeremy Irons. (This title on amazon – only in VHS when I checked.)

6. The Twits (1980) – 76 pp, 29 chapters – Ages 5 +

A short book about a nasty, vile couple, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Mr. and Mrs. Twit are generally abusive to each other but even worse to their pet monkeys. The monkeys enact an elaborate revenge upon them during which Mr. and Mrs. Twit come down with the Dreaded Shrinks and disappear altogether.

Very broad, violent, and gross. Some anti-beard sentiment, and as usual for Dahl, the animals are far more admirable than the humans. Lots of scathing insults are lobbed about. In the end this is simply a revenge fantasy, as the Twits get what’s coming to them. (This title on amazon.)

7. James and the Giant Peach (1961) – 119 pp, 39 chapters – Ages 5+

James is suddenly orphaned and sent to live with the most awful pair of aunts in literature. A little magic comes to the rescue in the form of a giant peach with oversized insects living in the pit. After the peach flattens the aunts James and the insects ride it across the ocean to New York City and live happily ever after.

Fantastic, exciting read. Tons of action and super short chapters had my 5-year-old on the edge of her seat. Highly recommended. (This title on amazon.)

Movie versions: James and the Giant Peach (1996) – live action/animated movie. Made by Henry Selick, the creator of The Nightmare Before Christmas, this movie bears a strong resemblance to that film, design-wise. Fairly faithful to the book, though it keeps the aunts alive throughout and skips the Cloud Men in favour of pirate skeletons. A pretty good movie suitable for 5 +. (This DVD on amazon.)

8. The Minpins (1991) – 48 pp. – Ages 5 +

A rather old-fashioned story involving a boy who meets the little people living in the forest. Oh, yeah, and the terrifying monster who chases him. No violence or rudeness in this one, and the language is civil. The monster scenes, especially the first one in which he chases Billy, are quite scary. Billy comes up with a plan to rid the forest of the beast by driving the fire-breather into a lake. (This title on amazon.)

9. Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970) – 81 pp, 18 chapters – Ages 5+

The story of three horrid farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean, and their attempts to kill the fox who is eating their poultry. Fortunately the head of the fox family is rather clever and a good digger as well, so the animals are able to evade capture or worse. (This title on amazon.)

Movie versions: The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) – animated movie by director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums). Bears only a surface resemblance to the book, and is not really a movie for children at all, at least not young ones. Maybe 8+? (But it is rather fantastic. I love Wes Anderson.) (This DVD on amazon.)

10. George’s Marvelous Medicine (1981) – 89 pp., 15 chapters – Ages 5+

George has a nasty Grandma, and he concocts a nasty potion to substitute for her nightly medicine. Many amazing things occur (to her and to the farm animals who also get a dose), and in the end Grandma shrinks so much she disappears altogether. No one seems particularly sad to see her go. Some parents may find this story problematic, both because of Grandma’s fate (though there are strong hints that she is a witch), but also because the hero throws everything into his medicine, poisonous or not – paint, shoe polish, flea powder, shampoo, floor polish, hairspray, detergent, engine oil and antifreeze. (George does draw the line at the family medicine chest, as he promised his parents he’d never go in there. A funny little moment of proper behaviour when you consider the other things he did put in his medicine!)

There’s also a certain amount of gross language, as Granny talks about eating bugs. And nasty name-calling, mostly from Granny again.

If you’re certain your child will not emulate George’s behaviour, this is a pretty funny book. (It made me laugh, the whole “imitateable behaviour” aspect is a total no-no these days, at least in television. Only Roald Dahl at the height of his fame could get away with this book!) (This title on amazon.)

11. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) – 160 pp., 30 chapters – Ages 5+

One of Dahl’s best known stories, about poor Charlie Bucket, who visits the magical chocolate factory with four other much less worthy children, who suffer unfortunate fates. (This title on amazon.)

Movie versions: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), which Dahl disliked so much that he forbade any further movie adaptations of the title during his lifetime. I have to say though that I quite liked it as a kid. Ages 4 +. (This DVD on amazon.)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) by Tim Burton is much truer to the book, though Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka is pretty creepy and Burton goes to great lengths to darken the already black humour of the original. Ages 6 +. (This DVD on amazon.)

12. Matilda – 1988 – 240 pp, 21 chapters – Ages 6 +

Young Matilda is precocious and brilliant, though her parents are dull and venal. She teaches herself to read at the age of four, amidst constant verbal abuse from her parents. At school her teacher Miss Honey is a saint, and the principal Miss Trunchbull a complete devil. Matilda discovers she can move objects with her mind. With her new-found powers she devises a way to defeat Miss Trunchbull and help Miss Honey. And in the end her home situation is resolved for the better as well.

An entertaining book that sings the praises of reading and education, but dishes out the terror and violence as well. Matilda’s parents and Miss Trunchbull are about as vile, nasty and rude as any literary villains you will ever find. The insults and general language of the children are lurid yet 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 for the emphasis on the value of learning to read.  (This title on amazon.)

Movie versions: Matilda (1996) (This DVD on amazon.)

13. The BFG (1982) – 208 pp, 24 chapters – Ages 6 +

Little orphan Sophie is kidnapped from her bedroom in the middle of the night by a prowling giant. Luckily he turns out to be the BFG (Big Friendly Giant), and not one of those nasty child-eating ones. He takes Sophie to his cave and tells her about how he collects nice dreams and distributes them to sleeping children. Together they plot to stop the other giants, who go forth every night to snack on unsuspecting humans. The only solution they can think of is to tell the Queen of England!

The BFG is a complex and fascinating character, with his huge swivelling ears and his unique way of speaking. The other giants are lawless, violent and just plain gross. They’ve eaten hundreds of humans over the years, mostly innocent children, and this provides a dark and macabre background to the story that may make it too gruesome for readers younger than about six.

The ending is very satisfying but the book is quite long, and not a great read for anyone with night terrors. (This title on amazon.)

Movie versions: The BFG (1989) – animated movie. (This DVD on amazon.)

14. The Witches – 1983 – 208 pp, 22 chapters – Ages 6 +

A young boy stumbles across a witches’ convention and overhears them plotting to do away with all the children in England. With the help of his fearless grandmother he foils their plans, but suffers from one of their spells nonetheless.

Extremely gruesome, ghoulish and gross, this tale doesn’t pull any punches. The witches, especially the head witch, are terrifying and we are told they could be anywhere, walking among us. The hero is changed by a potion into a mouse, and he doesn’t get turned back in the end (though he doesn’t seem to mind this in the least). A terrific adventure, but not for the squeamish.  (This title on amazon.)

Movie versions: The Witches (1990) (This DVD on amazon.)

15. Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972) – 164 pp, 20 chapters – Ages 7 +

Sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, telling the events which immediately follow the end of that book. Includes a trip to outer space, much satirical digging at the President of the United States and his advisors, and a close encounter with vermicious Knids. Somehow without any of the charm of the first book, and indulging in many sidetracks with ever-diminishing results. I wouldn’t bother with this one, unless you are determined to read them all… (This title on amazon.)

16. Boy: Tales of Childhood (1984) – Ages 9 +

An autobiographical account of Dahl’s childhood, including happy family times and not-so-happy school times. A really wonderful read, absolutely engrossing. Dahl is always entertaining in his vivid remembrances of vacations, sweets, pranks and general mishaps. Most astonishing and gripping for young readers, however, will probably be the tales of corporal punishment, as Dahl experienced it in British boarding schools.

17. The Vicar of Nibbleswicke (1990) – 22 pp. – Ages 10 +

This is the story of a dyslexic young vicar who says certain words backwards, to great effect. Situations are manipulated, of course, to have him saying quite naughty things. Ie. Miss Twerp for Miss Prewt, Dog for God, “each of you stink” for “each of you knits”, and entreating people to “krap” by the side of the road instead of “park”. The worst language is “pis” for “sip” (re. communion wine).

A very slim volume written as a charitable gift to the Dyslexia Institute. Characters and intent are quite gentle, it’s just the language that prevents this book from being suitable for younger readers.

18. Going Solo (1986) – 210 pp. – Ages 10+

Another autobiographical work, this time chronicling Dahl’s early adulthood and experiences in the air force during WWII. Deadly green mamba snakes in Africa, world travel and exotic adventures, a near-fatal airplane crash and death-defying career as a fighter pilot in World War II. If possible, even more gripping than Boy: Tales of Childhood.

Other Dahl Miscellany

POETRY

Roald Dahl also wrote three books of poetry for children: Revolting Rhymes (1982), Rhyme Stew (1989), and…

Dirty Beasts (1984) – 30 pp, 9 poems – Ages 5 +

From the intelligent pig who decides he must eat Farmer Bland before Farmer Bland eats him, to the child-eating crocodile, an ant-eater who eats an aunt, and a poor girl who sits on a porcupine. The first couple of poems are a little gruesome, but the worst is then over. NOT a great bedtime read for squeamish tots.

SCREENPLAYS

Little known fact: Roald Dahl wrote a draft of the screenplay for the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Although most of his work was rewritten and completed by other writers, he did create the memorable character of the Child-Catcher, one of the all-time scariest movie villains. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was adapted from the book of the same name by Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame, and Dahl also wrote the screenplay for Fleming’s You Only Live Twice.

OTHER

Roald Dahl also wrote a great deal of fiction for adults. For a full bibliography at wikipedia, click here.

THE ROALD DAHL FUNNY PRIZE

Every year awards are given out in Roald Dahl’s name to the funniest children’s books of the year. In the words of the Book Trust the Funny Prize aims to:

– promote laughter and humour as a feel-good factor when reading, by encouraging families to read together and discover the pleasure of funny books. This in turn will reinforce the message that reading together promotes family well-being.

– draw attention to funny books as readable and enjoyable books. We hope that the prize will enable these books to gain a profile that makes them more accessible to children and young people. The prize will work to achieve this through a range of activities supported by libraries, teachers and parents.

– reward and encourage authors (and illustrators) who write and illustrate books using humour in their stories, poetry and fiction. By creating these awards we hope to promote a vibrant area of publishing often overlooked by other awards.

More on the prize here.

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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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