Top 100 Children's Novels #30: Matilda by Roald Dahl
#30 Matilda by Roald Dahl (1988)
I loved that Dahl wrote completely for children. A kid reading Dahl knows he can make something or be someone or do something, no matter what anyone else around him says or does. – Heather Christensen
It just wouldn’t be right to make a list like this without Dahl. Last time, I included The Witches, my personal favorite as a child, but having just read Matilda to my daughter, I have to admit that this one is probably his best written book. – Mark Flowers
Matilda has the customary humor and bits of vileness that all of Dahl’s children’s books have that make them so fun and so true to life. It has loveliness and celebrates knowledge and reading. It has enthralling writing that you just want to devour and wonderful illustration. But most of all it has somebody to cheer for. Yes she has supernatural power, but in the end it’s Matilda’s sensibility and thoughtfulness, it’s just doing the right thing that leads to the take down of a horrible villain and encourages all the kids around her. She’s someone to root for. And it’s like eating candy, reading this book. One of the best storytellers of all time. You must read him, so why not start here? – Nicole Johnston
Those parents! The Trunchbull! What’s not to love? – Tracy Flynn
Watch out for the quiet ones.
It may surprise some to see Matilda standing higher on this list than poor modest Charlie Bucket. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that while most (not all) Dahl books starred boys of one stripe or another (George, James, Charlie, etc.) Matilda was the only gal to get her name front and center in the title. This is the closest Dahl ever got to a feminist vision, and little girls everywhere love them their Matilda. She was a kind of proto-Harry Potter complete with a nasty family and secret magical abilities. For a certain generation, Matilda was our Harry.
The plot description from the book reads, ” ‘The Trunchbull’ is no match for Matilda! Who put superglue in Dad’s hat? Was it really a ghost that made Mom tear out of the house? Matilda is a genius with idiot parents – and she’s having a great time driving them crazy. But at school things are different. At school there’s Miss Trunchbull, two hundred menacing pounds of kid-hating headmistress. Get rid of the Trunchbull and Matilda would be a hero. But that would take a superhuman genius, wouldn’t it?”
This could be all heresay and conjecture, but at a past ALA event I spoke with an editor who told me that Dahl’s original vision for Matilda was quite the opposite of the final product. By all accounts, Dahl wanted Matilda to be a nasty little girl, somewhat in the same vein of Belloc’s Matilda Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death. Revision after revision turned her instead into the sweet little thing we all know and love today. He retained her tendency towards revenge, however, and I think that’s another reason the book works as well as it does. In the end Matilda bore some similarities to James and the Giant Peach, though Dahl had the guts to go and make the actual parents in this book the bores, and not just mere aunties.
- In the book Revolting Recipes, there is a recipe for the chocolate cake The Trunchbull makes poor little Bogtrotter devour. That also happens to be my favorite scene, you know.
- True fan dedication.
Publishers Weekly said of it, “Adults may cringe at Dahl’s excesses in describing the cruel Miss Trunchbull, as well as his reliance on overextended characterization at the expense of plot development. Children, however, with their keenly developed sense of justice, will relish the absolutes of stupidity, greed, evil and might versus intelligence, courage and goodness.”
Said School Library Journal, “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.”
Considering how relatively recently it was published, there aren’t all that many covers. The usual plays on Quentin Blake, of course.
I would very much like to see the Matilda movie, actually. Casting-wise it’s rather inspired. I know that there have been objections to the degree to which Matilda uses her powers in the film, but I’d still like to give it a go. Can anyone vouch for / deplore it? Any movie with Rusted Root in the soundtrack can’t be all bad, after all.
Where are you today, Mara Wilson?
But really it’s the musical that’s been making the waves. A British production that, if we are good and helpful Yanks, may someday grace our Broadway stages too. Here are some clips:
Educating Alice has the reviews.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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