Roald Dahl was born 100 years ago today. He delighted so much in absolutes and extremes, I think he would have loved reaching such a nice, round, very-old age. Or maybe he just knew how delightful children find absolutes and extremes: so many of his characters are the worst (like Miss Trunchbull) or the best (Miss Honey) or otherwise the tallest or luckiest or poorest or … I don’t know, adrift in a giant peach, for example. Point is, nobody is ordinary or middling in the world of Roald Dahl. One of Dahl’s most extraordinary creations is Matilda Wormwood, the mischievous, telekinetic child genius of Matilda.
It’s funny: Matilda is unlike any child or adult I’ve encountered, but among my closest friends and favorite people I count a disproportionate number who once felt that they were just like her. I longed to be acknowledged as a kindergarten super-genius like Matilda, but something about her character made me feel seen. If you identified with Matilda too, then you can already guess what I loved about her: not the mischief or the magic, but the transformative power of reading. Matilda is about belonging and overcoming, but it is above all a book for book lovers.
Matilda was the only character I remember putting voice to that frustration most child bookworms have: not being allowed to read enough. Matilda’s parents don’t think reading is important, but they also don’t think that Matilda is important; Matilda’s trips to the library are the largesse of their negligence. Mrs. Phelps, an elderly librarian who is just trying her best, directs Matilda to the children’s books then is astonished when Matilda makes her way through all of them in weeks.
When I was 7, I saw this as evidence that I was just as special as Matilda. I despaired during every second grade library trip. We were only supposed to get books from the picture book area, yet outside of school I had already blown through the Baby-Sitters Club and Nancy Drew and was on to Charles Dickens and Shakespeare. Now I realize that Matilda’s frustration is common to a certain type of kid. Almost every child who loves to read feels dismissed by teachers or parents who confine them to the “baby” books that are appropriate to their grade. I still remember my grandmother telling me that she used to check out so many books from the library that the librarian confronted her mother, insisting no child that small could be reading that much. This was in the early 1930s. Matilda was singular, but there sure are a lot of Matildas.
If you identified with Matilda as a young book lover, you probably related to her take on material that was a little out of her grasp. Look at her opinion of Hemingway:
Mr. Hemingway says a lot of things I don’t understand, especially about men and women. But I loved it all the same. The way he tells it I feel I am right there on the spot watching it all happen.
When I was re-reading Matilda I had to stop and go back over that sentence, because that was it. That was exactly how it was reading adult books as a small child. Sure, I followed the basic plot of Emma and Jane Eyre in fourth grade, but sometimes the adult’s motives and experiences were beyond my reach. I was good at reading, but I still hadn’t lived more than nine years. Still, isn’t that also how LIFE was when you were a small child? You couldn’t make sense of adults’ actions all of the time, but you still observed them. It was so validating to read about another kid who could comprehend all of the words on a page, but not really get the subtext – yet still love what she was reading. Plenty of A Midsummer Night’s Dream didn’t make sense when I was very young, but I knew enough to know that it was beautiful. It’s why Matilda whispered “it’s like music” after Miss Honey recited Dylan Thomas.
In the film adaptation of Matilda, the narrator says that authors cast out their books “like ships onto the sea.” I love that simile – authors work and dream and agonize, but they have little say over the fate of their books once they’re published. But like Matilda – and THROUGH Matilda – sometimes the right one drifts to you and takes you along:
The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.