A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
I can’t be the only child who from time to time become convinced no one at home really understood me, that I was a square peg in a round hole. My family are lovely, I hasten to add, and nothing like the monstrous lot this fiercely clever heroine is saddled with, but Roald Dahl’s Matilda embodies a sense of not quite fitting in that has been a recurring theme for me at times. It’s not unpleasant or lonely, necessarily, more like leaning against a wall at a party with a drink in one hand, watching everyone else’s behaviour in much the same way as David Attenborough observes a pride of lions or pod of dolphins. I know I’m not the only writer who experiences this odd sense of being an outsider, a fascinated observer: I think it might even be a characteristic of the peculiar tribe I belong to, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Roald Dahl felt like this as well.
It’s Matilda’s expertise at exacting revenge on wrongdoers that really made me worship her when I was a child. The subtle and yet deserved malice of gluing of her father’s hat on to his dyed black hair is a stroke of genius. That game-changing newt in the pencil case. Children are powerless in so many respects, but Matilda takes justice into her own hands and rights the wrongs that most children just have to put up with – outrageous family members, evil teachers – none escape their just desserts in this book. I can remember sitting and watching a pencil on my desk, willing it to move, really believing that it just might, that I might share Matilda’s telekinetic powers. I think that’s part of Roald Dahl’s genius – he remembered what it was like to feel powerless and gives his characters the glorious gift of control.
Before I read Matilda, I had The Magic Finger – the eight-year-old heroine hates her neighbours’ passion for hunting ducks. In the real world, of course, there would be nothing she could do about it, and nothing she could do, either, about her mean, bullying teacher. But Dahl gives this unnamed girl the power to dispense justice, to change the world so that it fits the way she feels it ought to be. The shooting-mad Gregg family are transformed into ducks for a day, so they know how it feels to be shot at. The nasty teacher (a precursor to the spectacularly horrible Miss Trunchbull, perhaps), is turned into a cat. The idea of being able to change the world for the better, to right wrongs and defeat injustice is one that never loses its appeal, even once childhood has been left far behind. But what Dahl does is so clever – as a reader of Matilda or the Magic Finger, you also know that the thrill of absolute power is more than a little bit dangerous, and that there may well be unintended consequences. Matilda changes her own world just enough that she no longer needs her telekinetic powers, and once she is moved up into the top class and her home life becomes so much happier, with her enormous brain properly challenged, she loses her supernatural ability. After this point, she must rely on her own intelligence and innate sense of justice, with no magic to aid her. I’ll never forget Matilda. I’ll probably always want to move pencils just by looking at them – just a little bit, but perhaps it’s for the best that I can’t.