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Why Roald Dahl Novels Are Great Teaching Tools

October marks 30 years since Matilda – Roald Dahl’s classic novel about a brave young girl with many special gifts (including a talent for standing up to bullies) – was first published.

To celebrate this landmark anniversary, we’re looking back on the genius of Roald Dahl and what 21st century children can learn from his books; which, three decades on, are still powerful and relevant. And don’t forget, the best at home 11 plus preparation you can do is to support your child’s reading journey.

Key Messages from Roald Dahl, #1: Different is Good

Many of Roald Dahl’s most beloved characters are quirky, to say the least: from genius chocolate-maker Willy Wonka to the Big Friendly Giant and even Matilda herself, who has a peculiar flair for telekinesis. Their eccentricities mean that they don’t fit in. For example, the BFG is shunned by his fellow giants because he is, well, big and friendly (and doesn’t like to eat humans!); Matilda prefers reading to watching television, which her cruel family just can’t understand; and Willy Wonka lives with Oompa Loompas rather than other humans.

Little girl sitting on the floor and reading books in library

But rather than encouraging the reader to feel concerned for these characters or pity them for their outsiderness, Roald Dahl celebrates their quirks and champions those that follow their own path rather than following the crowd. Willy Wonka, the BFG and Matilda are all characters that the reader can’t help but fall in love with. Their differences make them special and unique: true trailblazers of Dahl’s magical world.

Not only does Dahl teach young readers to admire those who are different, he encourages open mindedness when it comes to forming relationships. When the orphan Sophie takes a chance and befriends the BFG, despite the massive differences between them, it proves to be the most rewarding relationship of her young life. Similarly, in James and the Giant Peach, James learns a great deal from his friendships with the giant bugs he meets (who couldn’t be more different from him). Dahl teaches children that what makes us unique should be embraced because it means we have so much to teach one another. Opposites really do attract!

Key Messages from Roald Dahl, #2: Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover

Similar to the point above about celebrating differences is Dahl’s focus on appearances. He emphasises how we should not judge those who look different to ourselves (or who do not match up to our preconceived notions of beauty). Beauty is only ever skin deep: the BFG, for instance, might seem scary at first – he’s an enormous giant! – but he has a kind heart. By contrast, the eponymous villains of The Witches, appear to be extremely attractive women but underneath it all are wicked, child-hating monsters.

Roald Dahl makes his thoughts on the subject clear in The Twits, in which he wrote: ‘A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.’

Key Messages from Roald Dahl, #3: Embrace Independence

In the world of Roald Dahl, parents or guardians do not always come across very well. Matilda Wormwood’s parents are ghastly: cruel and selfish, with criminal tendencies. James’ aunts in James and the Giant Peach are not much better.

When faced with an unhappy home, Dahl’s children characters do not rest on their laurels or feel sorry for themselves. Instead, they take control of the situation and find a way to get through it. Even Charlie Bucket (hero of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), who is blessed with a loving yet deeply impoverished family, doesn’t wallow. Charlie manages to secure a better future for himself (and his family) by taking matters into his own hands.

Whilst Roald Dahl certainly champions the value of family and friends, he also illuminates the importance of learning to trust one’s own judgement, make decisions, and support oneself.

Key Messages from Roald Dahl, #4: The Power of Reading

Fun, play and imagination are sometimes lost nowadays, in an age where education is increasingly focused on test results and ticking boxes. However, picking up a Roald Dahl book brings an instant change. What child could fail to fall in love with reading when ‘whizzpopping’ words like ‘snozzcumber’ and ‘wondercrump’ are floating around? For young people, particularly smaller children, there is a sense of sheer delight that comes with discovering new sounds and tongue-twisting bits of text. Through Dahl’s delightful prose, they will soon marvel at the power of language, imagination, and the sense that creative silliness isn’t always ‘wrong’ but – on occasion – is actively encouraged!

There’s a serious side to the pleasures of reading, too. Getting lost in a book can be a powerful therapeutic process particularly for children who are going through something at school or at home, or who are especially shy. Reading is a wonderful escape from the stresses of the outside world; a valuable way to develop coping mechanisms; and an amazing way to build imaginative skills. This is certainly the case for Matilda, who reads voraciously as a way to escape her unkind family and indulge her passion for learning. As Dahl puts it:The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. [Matilda] went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.’ (Matilda).

For more reading recommendations, visit our reading lists. Don’t forget you can always ask your tutor for ideas too!

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