Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Going Deeper With Dahl


Recent research shows that many teachers have an over-dependency on Dahl. Indeed, his books are excellent so he is certainly a best-selling children's author, and one who everyone is aware of: it's no surprise that he continues to be well-loved and well-read. And whilst I would be the first to advocate promoting a wider range of authors and books, I don't think we should throw the baby out with the bath water.

We often read Dahl books with young children (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the first 'proper' book I remember reading to myself at the age of 7) because the plot lines are easy to follow, the characters are wild and wacky and the stories are exciting and funny.

So, when reading with younger children, we can easily skip over the more horrific details and focus on the heart-warming stories and crazy words. But it is in these details that we have the opportunity to explore so much more: sadness, tolerance, difference, poverty, neglect, bullying, abuse, evil, animal cruelty, safety, unrequited love - all of these in his most-popular children's titles without touching his lesser-known books, or his publications for adults.

With this in mind, anyone who is familiar with Dahl would be able to mentally flick through their library of his books and identify how the stories could be used to help children understand the world and themselves a little better - especially with those trickier issues that we don't always know how to broach with children.

Five ways to go deeper with Dahl:

Family

I've always been fascinated with the fact that so many stories for children are about children with no parents (nearly all Disney films, for example). The Witches, James and the Giant Peach and The BFG all fall into this category. Why do story tellers do this? Do young readers fantasise about having adventures, and if so, do they get the impression they can only have them if parents are out of the picture? That would certainly be an interesting discussion to have with children. These books all provide great opportunities to discuss how many children all over the world are not brought up in a traditional family unit - an opportunity for our young people to empathise with others.

Abuse

Even where parents are present, as is the case in Matilda, relationships might not always be as they should be. Reading as an adult it is quite shocking how the Wormwoods treat their daughter, and indeed how the Trunchbull treats Miss Honey and the children in her school. Work here could go beyond the identification of good and bad characters to discuss right and wrong, looking at human rights for children and what is and isn't safe for children to be exposed to. Opportunities to study intertextuality are available here too: James' aunts’ treatment of him could be studied alongside.

Poverty

Poverty is a recurring theme too - most prevalent in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl paints a bleak picture of Charlie's family's lack of means, and again, this can be used as a starter point to discuss how many people in the world, including in our own country, our own towns, are less fortunate than ourselves. Another opportunity to link texts lies here with the depiction of Miss Honey's simple lifestyle in Matilda. In both stories we actually see the nicest characters being the poorest - perhaps a good debate topic can be derived here: Is it better to be rich and unkind, or poor and kind? Or something along those lines to help children to assess what the most important things in life are.

Difference and Diversity

What Dahl book doesn't deal with difference in some shape or form? The BFG's a friendly, vegetarian giant in a world full of vicious, human-eating brutes, and when he's not in giant country he's still a giant, making him very different to the humans he meets. Willy Wonka is quite something else, as are his Oompa Loompas, not to mention how different each one of the children are. Matilda has special powers. Danny lives in a caravan and poaches pheasants. The bugs inside the peach are a very diverse bunch. It might seem contrived to use these characters to explore difference and diversity but actually, to children, these things matter, and make sense - in the context of these stories they will be able to explore ideas that they would find difficult to begin to understand from real-world examples.

Consequences of Choices

Finally, Dahl's books provide fertile ground for discussing choices and how consequences can affect us. Again, in the safe space of fiction children can discuss the negative effects of meddling with prescription drugs (George's Marvellous Medicine), the possible outcomes of contravening safety rules and not listening to adults (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) or the potential results of being unkind (The Twits). Whilst discussing the actual events of the books (which are quite ridiculous), it would be easy enough to open up more general discussions that relate more to real-life scenarios that children might encounter.

Next time you pick up a Dahl book, think twice before you pass over it and decide to use something else. Consider the themes mentioned above; even if you don't use the whole book (many children are familiar with the stories anyway), consider how you might link a Dahl novel to another story you are reading. And next time you read Roald Dahl remember that there are opportunities to go deep with the content - perhaps you'll find further ways to get children thinking and empathising as they read the magical and wonderful adventures of Dahl's colourful characters.

And if you're a Roald Dahl fan, look out for ReadingWise's free Roald Dahl pack in July. It includes extracts from The Witches and George’s Marvellous Medicine and will focus on teaching 12 ‘mini-skills’ comprehension strategies allowing the children to explore the extracts and make meaning – great for struggling readers. It also includes a SATs-style ‘challenge test’ for each extract. This will be followed by an available-to-buy pack including extracts from a further eight Roald Dahl stories.

http://readingwise.com/dahl

2 comments:

  1. An interesting post. I tend to steer teachers away from Dahl as children tend to discover him independently. There are certainly some deeper themes and issues masked beneath the humour and his books are brilliant for identity themes across texts.

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    1. Yes, it's great that children can discover him on their own and I agree that teachers need to widen their reading horizons!

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