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written by Roald Dahl
illustrated by Quentin Blake
Puffin | ISBN 9780141345161
Paperback – 176 pages
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Originally published in 1988, "Matilda" was one of the last books author Roald Dahl wrote before his death in 1990. Most authors as they age become more cynical and dour. Think of the final writings of Dickens or Twain and how bitter they seemed in their late years. Then look at "Matilda". Here we have a sweet charming little piece of literature about a girl that is both good and interesting. Creating characters that you identify intrinsically with is not only difficult but (in children's books) sometimes near impossible. Reading "Matilda", it becomes clear that Roald Dahl never lost his touch for creating wonderful original characters and situations.
The heroine of this little book also carries its name. Matilda is incredibly intelligent, even as a small child. Living with her boorish parents and oblivious brother, she teaches herself to read from the various magazine and newspapers lying about the house. Her parents are completely indifferent to their only daughter and it is only by playing small tricks on them when they've been particularly nasty that little Matilda is able to keep a hold on her sanity. By age five and a half Matilda has read all the children's books in the library and quite a few of the adult ones as well. On entering school for the first time, our protagonist comes face to face with a very worthy enemy. The Head Teacher, Miss Trunchbull, is the worst kind of dangerous violent adult. It is only through Matilda's cleverness that she is able to come to the aid of her teacher, Miss Honey, and save the school from the Trunchbull's insanity.
As I mentioned before, Matilda is just the nicest kid ever. Intelligent without ever becoming pig-headed. Nice without becomes precious. She's just a swell child all around. Through her, Dahl takes some mighty fine cracks as his fellow kiddie lit authors. I was especially fond of the portion in which Matilda points out that though C.S. Lewis and Tolkien are fine writers, "There aren't many funny bits". And as we all know, Dahl is the master of the funny bit for kids. This book is chock full of them too. It contains all the usual peculiar Dahl touches (like kids being swung out of the playground by their pigtails) as well as practical jokes and nasty adults. The Trunchbull is perhaps THE nastiest adult ever to grace the pages of the Dahl world. Definitely unhinged, she abuses the children around her, coming just shy of actual physical contact. It is amazing then that Dahl doesn't dispatch of her in a violent or crazy fashion. She merely...disappears. Likewise Matilda's parents get their comeuppance by merely fleeing the country to Spain. Dahl was quite soft in his old age, it seems.
Reading this book today I was struck by how much Lemony Snicket owes to Mr. Dahl. Not just the usual adults-are-nasty-cruel-and-possibly-batty take, but the narrative voice as well. It took me a couple minutes to realize that this was Dahl talking and not Mr. Handler. Illustrated by Quentin Blake, the book is perfectly complimented by the illustrators' insane imaginings and concoctions. The Blake/Dahl pairing is often inspired, and it works to its best advantage here. I can't imagine this book without Blake's particular little pointy nosed heroine gracing the pages. For those parents who either don't approve of Dahl or just don't "get" him, I think "Matilda" is the perfect story to win them over. You'd have to be pretty hard of heart not to love its little heroine and the troubles she gets into. A charming treat to be enjoyed for years to come.
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