A Reply to Roald Dahl

By Eleanor Cameron

Mr. Dahl states in his reply to my article “McLuhan, Youth, and Literature”: Part I (Horn Book, October 1972) that I have made a personal attack upon him. I had no intention of attacking Mr. Dahl personally. Concerning Eudora Welty, it is true that I believe in what she has to say about the three kinds of goodness in writing, which for her include the evocation of a point of view. And I can only say that I find a certain point of view (or is it the lack of a point of view?) felt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Knopf) to be extremely regrettable when it comes to Willy Wonka’s unfeeling attitude toward the Oompa-Loompas, their role as conveniences and devices to be used for Wonka’s purposes, their being brought over from Africa for enforced servitude, and the fact that their situation is all a part of the fun and games. I find it regrettable, too, that Willy Wonka, through the cleverness of his advertising, can triumphantly convince Charlie that life lived forever inside the factory, enclosed as in a prison, is the height of all possible bliss, with here again no word said, nothing expressed, that would question this idea.

The book is wish-fulfillment in caricature, and as caricature, it is removed from reality. This does not imply, however, that it lacks meaning (a depressing one, when you consider Wonka’s power and coolness) any more than a fairy tale lacks meaning because, being fantastical, it is removed from reality. But the situation of the Oompa-Loompas is real; it could not be more so, and it is anything but funny.

Mr. Dahl doesn’t touch on this point, but speaks instead of his personal difficulties. I am genuinely sorry to hear of them, and of the accident to Mr. Dahl’s son. But had I known of the book Pat and Roald, which I did not, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to read it as a necessary preface to thinking about the various ideas and attitudes that compose Charlie. Mr. Dahl’s personal life has nothing whatever to do with those ideas and attitudes as far as criticism of the book is concerned.

Mr. Dahl accused me of “insinuating nasty things . . . about the school teachers of America” when I commented on the fact that Charlie and Charlotte’s Web (Harper) are the two most read aloud books in the country by those teachers who haven’t a wide enough awareness of what else they might read. I said that I wished more teachers had a real working knowledge of children’s books which they could use to rich advantage in their classes. Mr. Dahl’s exaggeration of these two statements into “insinuating nasty things . . . about the school teachers of America” is incredible. One teacher, after hearing a talk on children’s fiction, spoke of the burden of teaching children with reading disabilities and of the never-ending reports she is required to make. She felt strongly that she could use a reminder about every three months of the relationship between children’s literature and the development of their imaginations, the advantages to the children inherent in a teacher’s wide knowledge of children’s books, and the need to read aloud to her classes. She said it was all so easily lost sight of under the pressure of daily schedules.

I asked a Reading-and-Language-Arts director, who travels from school to school, what percentage of the teachers know a few children’s books and read them aloud, and she said perhaps fifty percent. I then asked how many teachers have a really good working knowledge of children’s books, and the reply was, “About twenty-five percent.”

At no point in my article did I suggest that Little Women and Gulliver’s Travels be read aloud in class. I spoke of them, along with Pinocchio and Alice, as books that have had a long life, and wondered how many books being written today would last as long.

As for Mr. Dahl’s book, nobody is going to stop his son from reading it. Who would? This is preposterous. Thank God, both here and in the United Kingdom, we can read whatever books we like. Meanwhile, those who are involved with children’s books and reading, those charged with making judgments, must bring all of their reflective powers to bear as well as a sense of aesthetics, because popularity and the literary value of a book are so often confused. Popularity in itself does not prove anything about a book’s essential worth; there are all sorts of poor and mediocre creations which are enormously popular simply because they are wish-fulfilling.

Certainly, it is true that in the process of discriminating, some people may come to differing conclusions, as many of us have about Charlie. Still, those who are concerned with children’s reading realize that they must think about a book as well as have feelings about it, even though criticism — indeed, because criticism — like poetry, begins with emotion.

From the April 1973 issue of The Horn Book Magazine
Horn Book
Horn Book

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