18. A children’s book: Matilda by Roald Dahl
List Progress: 26/30 (+2)
While I grew up on the film adaptations of Matilda and James and the Giant Peach, I have only directly interacted with the writing of Roald Dahl as an adult. While he has always struck me as a very strange person (his adult short stories are downright unsettling), I can absolutely see why he has captured the imagination of many, many children. Matilda, his 1988 children’s novel about a brilliant young girl with supernatural powers, is dark and twisted, but with just enough heart and hope to make it appeal to children and adults alike.
The story follows Matilda, a five year old in a ridiculously abusive situation, trapped between parents who don’t care about her at all and a school headmistress who revels in torturing children. The spots of light in her existence are library books that take her to other worlds, and her kind and compassionate teacher Miss Honey. Oh, and a strong sense of justice and punishment. Rarely for a children’s book, Matilda has a strong and directly-stated message that subjugated people have a right to dole out punishment to their abusers, even if they are children punishing authority figures. Dahl is not afraid to offer power to children, beyond what even child protagonists are often given. The adults in Matilda’s life are either cruel or abused themselves, and neither she nor the narrative have any problems about her using powers both mundane and supernatural to bring about justice. That’s a very powerful message for a children’s book, one that I have a hard time thinking of other examples of.
On a structural level, I have some nitpicks: Miss Honey’s backstory is introduced a little late in the story for it to have as much weight as it does in the climax and the scenes of headmistress Miss Trunchbull punishing kids go on for a bit too long. But on the whole, this is a lovely piece of literature that has touched generations for a reason.
To bring in the 1996 film adaptation for just a bit, I was a bit surprised and delighted at the ending. The film version of Matilda ends with a solid and sure voice-over explaining that everything ended happily ever after, which fits well for the conclusion of a feature-length film that is a degree or two lighter on the whole than the book. The conclusion of the book is quieter, more open-ended. The evocative illustrations by Quentin Blake (which are wonderful throughout) leave Matilda and Miss Honey alone on the page, looking out at the possibility of a new life and appearing small but hopeful. And together.
That touched me as a grown woman, I cannot imagine how impactful that would be for a child in a rough situation. Matilda, the book, the movie and the character, are all lovely.
Would I Recommend It: Yes.