Discover What Roald Dahl and Julia Donaldson Hoped to Achieve with Their Stories
by Alexie Basil and Alana Pedalino
The most beloved children’s stories tend to conjure up some thoughtful dialogue—especially when they deal with spooky subjects such as witches!
But why do authors write their books in the first place? What conversations are they hoping to start? And what do they have to say to people who see their work differently than they do?
We set out to discover what Roald Dahl and Julia Donaldson each had to say about some of their respective creative choices in The Witches and Room on the Broom.
The Witches by Roald Dahl, which was published in 1983, is considered a classic and is a favorite of many readers all over the world (it’s been translated into 59 languages and has more than 200 million copies in print!). But before that, Roald and his editor, Stephen Roxburgh, worked hard behind the scenes to get the manuscript in tip-top shape.
In the incredible article “Gobsmacked! Memories of Editing ‘The Witches’” published in Publishers Weekly, Stephen recalls some of the many editorial conversations he had with the beloved author.
Some of the conversations are pretty funny and compelling—for example, after forwarding edits from their American copyeditor, Dahl wrote back, “I don’t approve of some of your Americanisms. This is an English book with an English flavour and so it should remain.” Specifically, “I do not agree ‘candy’ for ‘sweet.’ Your children will know what sweets are and anyway it’s important for the witch to say ‘Sveet-shop.’ So no candy or candy-shops, please.”
But digging into the deeper subject matter, in the decades that have passed since it was published, some critics have raised concerns about the portrayal of women in The Witches. In particular, this section:
“I am not, of course, telling you for one second that your teacher actually is a witch. All I am saying is that she might be one. It is most unlikely. But—and here comes the big ‘but’—it is not impossible.
“Oh, if only there were a way of telling for sure whether a woman was a witch or not, then we could round them all up and put them in the meat-grinder. Unhappily, there is no such way. But there are a number of little signals you can look out for, little quirky habits that all witches have in common, and if you know about these, if you remember them always, then you might just possibly manage to escape from being squelched before you are very much older.”
It turns out that Stephen had similar questions for Roald. But when Stephen asked if the portrayal should be changed, Roald wasn’t worried. “I don’t agree with you about women coming in for a lot of stick all the way through,” Roald wrote. “The nicest person in the whole thing is a woman [the grandmother] so I have not changed anything here.”
And further, when Stephen asked if the teachers hiding on top of desks when they see a mouse is cliché, Roald rearticulated one of his central purposes for telling stories. “This is not a cliché to children, it is a situation they will enjoy,” he said. “I must keep reminding you that this is a book for children and I don’t give a bugger what grown-ups think about it. This has always been my attitude.”
Julia Donaldson’s Room on the Broom takes a more lighthearted look at witches while keeping with Roald’s “kids-first” approach to storytelling—and you can thank her musical background for that! Before she wrote books for children, Julia wrote songs. But when she writes for children, she really sees her books as poems. And when asked in an interview how she came up with her clever rhymes, she said:
“In order for rhymes not to be contrived and stilted, I often have to try out lots of different ways of saying what I want to say, varying the last word so that I can find the most natural rhyme.…
“I don’t think I’ve ever changed a story radically to suit a rhyme, but they do have an influence—for instance, if ‘black’ didn’t rhyme with ‘back’ then the Gruffalo’s tongue might be a different colour.”
When writing Room on the Broom, Julia said she based the character of the witch on herself: “When I first created the witch, it was me really,” she admitted. “Like her, I leave a trail of lost things, although I have tried to reform.”
In general, Julia pictures the characters she writes about as drawn by Axel Scheffler, who is the illustrator of Room on the Broom. Sometimes when they sit down to collaborate, Axel’s illustrations don’t always turn out as Julia had originally imagined!
“I am scruffy, so it was quite a surprise when I saw how Axel had drawn her. She is quite neat,” Julia said.
Like Roald, Julia doesn’t try to put an adult lens on her work for children by starting out with a specific moral lesson. When asked if her stories always have a moral or message, she responded, “Really I’m just trying to write a good story with memorable language. Of course there often is an underlying truth or message, because otherwise a story would just be a series of coincidences, but I certainly don’t set out to teach children how to behave.”
Ultimately, Julia and Axel’s books tap into playful, silly fun. “You have to forget about any aspects of realism....In a picture book anything is possible,” Axel said in an interview with the Guardian. Perhaps that’s why there’s a hidden Gruffalo in many of their collaborations since The Snail and the Whale!
But interestingly enough, even Julia has dealt with her share of questions about her stories—specifically about the morals in her breakout picture book, The Gruffalo. When John Walsh of the Independent asked her, “Does The Gruffalo have a moral? Apart from: lie through your teeth when you’re in a tight corner?” Donaldson replied, “Yes, I have been criticised for being immoral...for saying that you should tell lies to scare predators off. But really it’s a story about using brains over brawn. Luckily all the other animals are very stupid, or it wouldn't work.”
It’s fun to think about the purpose behind authors’ creative decisions in their stories. If your students could ask Roald Dahl or Julia Donaldson about their choices, what would they want to know? We’d love to hear from you! Also, please let us know what’s on your Halloween reading list by sharing on Facebook and Instagram and using the hashtag #ScholasticBookClubs. We’d love to repost you!
Roald Dahl (1916–1990) was a spy, an ace fighter pilot, a chocolate historian, and a medical inventor. He was also the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The BFG, and a treasury of original, beloved children’s books. He remains for many the world’s number-one storyteller. He is buried in the parish church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Great Missenden—the Buckinghamshire village where today the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre continues his extraordinary mission to amaze, thrill, and inspire generations of children and their parents.
Photo © Tony Evans/Getty Images
Quentin Blake is the illustrator of a wide range of books, including many by Roald Dahl. He is also an author of his own books, including The Story of the Dancing Frog, The Laureate’s Party, and Ludwig Bemelmans. In 1999, he became the inaugural Children’s Laureate of Great Britain. He lives in London, England.
© Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
Bestselling author Julia Donaldson has more than 140 titles to her credit. Her work includes critically acclaimed titles such as The Gruffalo, The Ugly Five, Room on the Broom, The Snail and the Whale, The Princess and the Wizard, The Dinosaur’s Diary, and The Giants and the Joneses. Julia lives with her family in Glasgow, Scotland. For more information, please visit juliadonaldson.co.uk.
Photo © Alex Rumford
Axel Scheffler’s award-winning books include Room on the Broom, The Snail and the Whale, and The Gruffalo. His illustrations have been published in more than 30 countries. He lives in London, England.
Photo © Liam Jackson
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