James and the Giant Peach
by Roald Dahl
Alfred A. Knopf
British writer Roald Dahl (1916-1990), author of the beloved children's books Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr Fox, began his career writing short stories for adults.
Dahl's first novel, Sometime Never, appeared in 1948 but his first experience of major success as a writer, however, came with the publication of James and the Giant Peach, which began life as a bedtime story he told his daughters, Olivia and Tessa.
The titular James is James Henry Trotter, an orphan whose parents were eaten "by an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo". James lives with his horrible aunts, Sponge and Spiker, "in a queer ramshackle house on the top of a high hill in the south of England" and is never allowed to have fun. His days are filled with difficult and tiring chores.
One day, James meets an old man who offers him a small white paper bag filled with "a mass of tiny green things that looked like little stones or crystals, each one about the size of a grain of rice". It is a concoction of crocodile tongues, lizard eyeballs, the fingers of a young monkey, a pig's gizzard, a green parrot's beak, porcupine juice and sugar. When ingested, it acts as an antidote to misery.
But before he can drink the brew, James trips next to a peach tree in the garden, spilling the contents of the bag. The mixture disappears into the earth. Later, a peach begins growing on the tree, and the fruit soon balloons to the size of a house.
When James crawls inside the peach, he discovers a group of bugs the size of large dogs. There's an old grasshopper, a spider, a ladybird, a centipede, an earthworm, a silkworm and a glow worm. Together, they free the peach from the tree and roll away to have a series of life-threatening adventures.
In the first edition of the novel, Dahl's dazzling language is accompanied by illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert. The detail in her drawings is astonishing: she renders every blade of grass, bird's wing and strand of hair so carefully the fantastical elements in each image seem like reality.
Decades later, James and the Giant Peach still feels modern. Society has changed, but what children fear the most - loneliness, abandonment and alienation - remains the same. Dahl understood childhood misery well.
Reading his work is akin to hearing someone laugh after suffering a long, gloomy silence.