April 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Roald Dahl’s Beloved ‘Matilda’ Marks 25th Anniversary with Musical and More

Twenty-five years after its publication, Matilda (Viking, 1988) is still high on the list of most beloved children’s books from author Roald Dahl, a collection that includes such classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Knopf, 1964), James and the Giant Peach (Knopf, 1961), and Fantastic Mr. Fox (Knopf, 1970). Although many older fans will recall the 1996 film adaptation—in which director Danny DeVito stars as Matilda’s father—this anniversary year, Matilda really gets the star treatment. Fans can expect a new musical opening on Broadway next month, a special tie-in edition of the book, and accolades pouring in from critics who are discovering (or rediscovering) the quirky heroine, her author, and her illustrator, Quentin Blake.

Roald Dahl’s daughter, Lucy. Photo credit: Penguin Young Readers Group.

Dahl’s story of the precocious little book-loving girl is filled with “sardonic humor, the evilest of villains, the most virtuous of heroines, and children who eventually defeat those big bad grown-ups,” according to Heide Piehler of Shorewood Public Library (WI), who wrote the book’s original review for School Library Journal  in 1988.

As she noted at the time, “This may not be a teacher’s or principal’s first choice as a classroom read-aloud, but children will be waiting in line to read it.”

And that they have done for 25 years, librarians tell SLJ.

Prior to its publication, Dahl had given an original copy of Matilda to his daughter Lucy, who was in her early twenties. “I loved it,” she tells SLJ, recalling, “When I came home to visit, my father handed me the manuscript…I read it that same evening.” Her favorite part? “The Chokey,” she says. “I think it is a marvelously horrific invention.”

Not to be overlooked is the tremendous contribution of frequent Dahl collaborator Quentin Blake, whose illustrations bring to life Matilda’s characters. In his hands, headmistress Trunchbull—who Dahl describes as “gigantic holy terror, a fierce tyrannical monster who frightened the life out of the pupils and teachers alike”—becomes a woman that is intimidating to readers of all ages. Last year, Britain’s Royal Mail recognized Blake by issuing his illustrations from various Dahl books (including Matilda) as six stamps; this year, he was knighted in the 2013 New Year’s Honours List for his services to illustration.

Blake’s cover illustration—of Matilda herself sitting amongst an enormous pile of books—is a particular favorite for Lucy Dahl, she tells SLJ. “When the movie was being made, Mara Wilson and I reenacted the illustration for the cover of my movie tie-in book. It was great fun.”

American fans will have a new live adaptation soon when Matilda, the Musical—which premiered on London’s West End on November 24, 2011—debuts on Broadway on April 11. In the UK, the show won seven 2012 Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical. The script was written by Dennis Kelly, while Tim Minchin composed the music and lyrics.

Says Lucy Dahl, “I have seen the musical two times. I think it is fantastic. I absolutely love it. It captures the feeling of my father’s writing with a delicate awareness of both the humor, the love, and the true essence of Matilda, the Trunchbull, and the relationship between children and adults across the world from the most perfect home to the most horrendous school.”

Monica Edinger, blogger at educating alice and co-runner of SLJ’s annual Battle of the Kids’ Books, also really enjoyed the London production. “The heart of Dahl’s book is maintained beautifully with some lovely adjustments that simply strengthen it overall for the stage,” she says.

And recently, SLJ  blogger Betsy Bird caught a preview of the Broadway version right here in New York City. A passionate fan of Dahl’s original book—check out her enthusiastic post when it appeared on the #30 spot for SLJ’s Top 100 Children’s Novels  poll—she offers a positive and thoughtful review of the new production at her blog, Fuse #8.

Matilda was a kind of proto-Harry Potter complete with a nasty family and secret magical abilities,” says Bird. “For a certain generation, Matilda was our Harry.”

A new Broadway musical tie-in edition of the book—complete with special notes from Kelly and Minchin—is available from Puffin Books.

Lucy Dahl will be celebrating Matilda’s anniversary “by reading twenty-five books this year,” she says, as well as continuing to raise awareness of two of her father’s lasting legacies, The Roald Dahl Foundation, also known as Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity, and the award-winning Roald Dahl Museum and Story Center, located in the village of Great Missenden, England, where Roald Dahl lived and wrote for over 30 years.

The Roald Dahl foundation was created by Roald Dahl’s widow Felicity to help very ill children. “Our intention is to help in whatever way we can,” Lucy Dahl tells SLJ. “We help individual children, specialist nurses for children, and we support charitable organizations.”

The museum, meanwhile, offers young fans two interactive biological galleries that delight all the senses, including Dahl’s Writing Hut and its original contents and furnishings—the workspace that he called his “little nest”—tons of photos, giant chocolate doors, and fun facts and games. Says Lucy Dahl, “You can walk about and see the actual places where my father got the inspiration for most of his characters—the tree where Mr. Fox lived, the bedroom where Sophie was taken by the BFG, the caravan where Danny lived with his father, and on and on it goes!”

Dahl’s biggest impact on the world, however, is even larger, Lucy Dahl tells SLJ. “The fondest memory I have of my father is driving home from school, stopping at a little shop for ice creams and singing our ‘made-up’ songs all the way home together,” she says. “My father’s legacy is actually hidden in the words of his final book, The Minpins. It is the power of the imagination:

‘Above all watch with glittering eyes, the whole world around you, because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places, those who don’t believe in magic, will never find it.’’’

Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.