All authors were once children, none more so than authors of books for children. They have that magical ability to remember the joys and sorrows of youth. Roald Dahl had that gift by the bucketload and it led to truly wonderful books like “The BFG”, “Fanastic Mr. Fox”, and many others.
I’m lucky, I think, because I never read his books as a child – somehow I missed out on Dahl. However a friend recently got me the box-set of his entire works for me to read to my own children and we’re loving them together. I was delighted to find the two volumes of Dahl’s autobiography in the set – “Boy” (which is on the 501 Books List) and “Going Solo” (which isn’t).
I enjoy autobiographies anyhow, but I particularly relished “Boy” because Dahl sets out to recount only the stories from his childhood which he can still see vividly in his memory as a middle-aged author. The result is a vibrant tale of mischief, school-days, and strange characters he encountered. Having read all his kids’ books recently it was easy to spot a few things which turn up later in his fiction. There’s his addiction to sweet-shops, some very tall people (including himself), and a plot involving mice. In the later volume, “Going Solo”, which covers his years working for Shell Oil in Africa and then flying for the RAF in World War II, there’s an amazing description of him walking amongst giraffes and talking to them which makes me suspect I know the original of the Giraffe in “The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me”.
But for “Boy” he mines his life from age zero to twenty. There are stories of his family’s annual trip to the remote islands of Norway, details of the tuck box system, enthusings about his lifelong photographic hobby, and wince-inducing descriptions of the canings he endured for misbehaviour in school. Any fan of his writing will enjoy this short, and fun life-story, but I think autobiography buffs will enjoy it too because of the light hand he uses in picking out the highlights. There’s a total lack of boring dates and facts, the photos are all interesting, and the details included are well-chosen.
“Boy” could be read by junior fans of his fiction, but I’d suggest keeping “Going Solo” for the ten-plus age range as some of the stories there are more brutal in nature.
In case you’re wondering, Boy is what he signed himself in his letters home from boarding school.
(read March 2012)