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An unexpected encounter with The Gremlins

On a recent trip to New Orleans I spent a day visiting the National World War II Museum. The museum itself was a treat for this history buff to explore, but as a children’s literature aficionado, I also got a pleasant surprise in the gift shop: on display was a book by Roald Dahl. I knew Dahl had been an RAF pilot at the start of the war and had later been transferred to Washington, DC, as a military attaché at the British Embassy. What I didn’t know was that during that time he also wrote his first published work, The Gremlins (reissued by Dark Horse Books in 2006).

The Gremlins is based on stories Dahl shared with other RAF pilots about six-inch-tall legendary creatures who, exacting revenge because their forest home had been destroyed to build an airplane factory, sabotaged flights by drilling holes in planes and teasing the pilots, navigators, and air-gunners who fly them. RAF pilot Gus wins over some gremlins by feeding them used postage stamps (a gremlin delicacy), then he recommends opening a Gremlin Training School to teach the creatures how to repair planes, rather than destroy them, and fight with pilots rather than against them.

The book contains classic Dahl humor, quirky characters, and a unique glimpse at the war. While the book is full of whimsy, it was also apt for use in the morale-boosting efforts of the time. In film critic Leonard Maltin’s introduction to this new edition, he explains that Dahl was seeking a publisher for the story when it wound up in the hands of Walt Disney. Disney’s Hollywood movie studio had been commandeered by the Armed Forces to make training films and other war-related shorts, and the moviemaker saw in The Gremlins potential for a feature film; he flew Dahl out to Burbank in the summer of 1942 to help create a rough storyline.

Disney first published a seven-page preview of the movie in the December 1942 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. In mid-1943, Random House published the book-length version with the text attributed to Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl and (uncredited) illustrations by Disney employees Bill Justice and Al Dempster. The studio merchandised the characters while the cartoon film was still in progress to create early public interest, and a finished script — closely resembling Dahl’s original story — was ready in May 1943.

But the production never came to fruition: Disney abandoned plans to make a film in late 1943. Though the exact reason is not agreed upon, there had been difficulties getting other animation studios to forego running their own gremlins-type cartoons, and there was a feeling amongst distributors that the public was tired of war films. Fortunately, the Disney Gremlins did live on as military insignias created by Disney artists for Allied divisions around the world, and in 1943, Fifinella (a female gremlin) became the official mascot of the WASP.

It’s a shame that the film version of this funny, relatively unknown book was never made, but I’m glad it’s been republished for a new generation of readers to appreciate. I was so intrigued by the story behind the story that, before leaving the museum, I bought the book — which, much to my delight, came with my very own gremlin.

I love discovering connections to the children’s literature world when I’m traveling. What children’s literature–related gems have you discovered on vacation?

Cynthia K. Ritter About Cynthia K. Ritter

Cynthia K. Ritter is associate editor of The Horn Book Guide. She earned a master's degree in children's literature from Simmons College.



  1. Bethann says:

    I’m glad I got my Gremlin Gus too! I wonder if you can find the book anywhere other than the WWII Museum?

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