James and the Giant Peach: Not for kiddies only

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsJames and the Giant Peach by Roald DahlJames and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

Perhaps I should confess right up front that this review of what is popularly regarded solely as a children’s book is being written by a 50+-year-old male “adult” who hadn’t read a kids’ book in many years. For me, Welsh author Roald Dahl had long been the guy who scripted one of my favorite James Bond movies, 1967’s You Only Live Twice, and who was married for 30 years to the great actress Patricia Neal. Recently, though, in need of some “mental palate cleansing” after a bunch of serious adult lit, I picked up Dahl’s first kiddy novel, James and the Giant Peach, and now know what several generations have been aware of since the book’s release in 1961: that this is an absolutely charming story for young and old alike, with marvelous characters, a remarkably imaginative story line and some quirky humor scattered throughout.

As most baby boomers and their kids and grandkids probably know by now, this short novel introduces us to James Henry Trotter, a young boy who is forced to move in with his nasty Aunts Sponge and Spiker when his loving parents are eaten by a rhinoceros on the streets of London (!). His miserable existence takes a turn for the better when a mysterious old man gives him a bagful of magic green crystals, which James promptly and accidentally spills near the base of a barren peach tree. What follows is wondrous in the extreme, as James discovers a septet of insectoid friends inside the enormous, house-sized fruit that soon develops. Along with his new buddies — a centipede, an old grasshopper, an earthworm, a glowworm, a silkworm (which character was oddly dropped from the 1996 Disney filmization), a spider and a ladybug — James sets off in the detached peach on a trans-Atlantic journey, and this is just the beginning of his great adventures. Dahl makes sure that each of his insect characters has a distinct personality of his or her own; the centipede is a snarky showoff, the earthworm a constant worrier, the grasshopper wise and serene, the silkworm a quiet nonentity, Miss Spider sweet and caring, the ladybug warm and maternal, the glowworm mainly concerned with keeping her light going. Each brings its own set of abilities to the fore in times of crisis, James’ own particular strength being his great boyish intelligence, natch. They are a terrific team of characters that effectively show the little ones the value of teamwork and overcoming differences.

Adult readers of James and the Giant Peach will likely be struck by errant thoughts as the story progresses. For example, the violent deaths of Spiker and Sponge, not to mention James’ parents, are surprising, if glossed over lightly. Perhaps these instances of violence are the reason why this book ranks #56 on the American Library Association’s list of “The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990 – 1999.” (Dahl’s The Witches is #27.) Still, generations of impressionable youths have managed to take in the “objectionable” aspects of this book with no discernible damage to their delicate psyches, as far as I can tell! Adult readers may also be amused at the mention of a “famous factory where they made chocolate” in the book (a foreshadowing of 1964’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?), and wonder at the number of sophisticated words (such as “wampus,” “manticore” and “prock”) that Dahl dishes out for the kiddies. They may also get a huge kick out of the hilarious poems and songs scattered throughout the story, as well as by the lighthearted humor in general. (I think it’s hilarious that Miss Ladybug winds up marrying the head of the NYC Fire Department!) Grown-ups may also find cause to wonder why all those 502 seagulls fall into James’ lasso trap. Couldn’t all those birds detect this trap after 50 or so were snared? But this is a quibble. From magical beginning throughout its action-packed length (I haven’t even mentioned the shark sequence yet, or the extended segment with the Cloud Men, which the Disney film unwisely drops in favor of an underwater ghost ship that is not in Dahl’s novel), this book is a joy and a pleasure for young and — as I have just proved to myself — um, older alike. This classic work hardly needs MY seal of approval at this late date, but I just wanted all the adults out there to know that this might be a fun read for them, too. And now, I think I’m gonna go pick up The Witches

Publication Date: 1961 | Age Level: 8 – 12 | Grade Level: 3 – 7. A little magic can take you a long way. After James Henry Trotter’s parents are tragically eaten by a rhinoceros, he goes to live with his two horrible aunts, Spiker and Sponge. Life there is no fun, until James accidentally drops some magic crystals by the old peach tree and strange things start to happen. The peach at the top of the tree begins to grow, and before long it’s as big as a house. Inside, James meets a bunch of oversized friends—Grasshopper, Centipede, Ladybug, and more. With a snip of the stem, the peach starts rolling away, and the great adventure begins!

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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