BLESS YOU, MR. DAHL

The following is an excerpt from a foreword that Roald Dahl wrote in the excellent collection Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories (Noonday Press 1983). He’s talking about the preponderance of excellent female authors of ghost stories after first pointing out that women are under-represented in two out of three of the major creative arts- music and painting. At least in the top ranks. And in the area of writing there are plenty of great female novelists but not many great short-story writers or playwrights. Except in the field of ghost stories which tend to be short. Ok, this could be arguable but it’s what he said next that heartened and encouraged me.

“I have no doubts at all where women stand when it comes to one of the most important facets of all creative literature. I mean of course children’s books. You may scream all you like when you read that statement and I do not say it because I sometimes write children’s books myself. I say it because I am convinced that they are one of the most important. All other forms of fiction are written purely to divert and entertain the adult mind. Children’s books must also divert and entertain, but they do something else at the same time. They actually teach the child the habit of reading. They teach him to be literate, they teach him vocabulary and nowadays they teach him that there can be better ways of passing the time than watching television.

The manner in which children’s books are virtually ignored by literary magazines, by Sunday newspaper reviewers and by the so-called literary establishment in general is scandalous. Biographies are given the most attention of all, then adult novels, then poetry. Children’s books are only noticed every now and again. And yet-now listen carefully please- and yet, let any of these high-blown authors or critics attempt to write a children’s book, I mean a fine children’s book that children will fall in love with and which will endure through the years, and he will almost certainly fail.

I am fairly sure that it is more difficult to write a fine and enduring children’s book than a fine and enduring novel. My reason for making this contentious statement is as follows. How many adult novels are written every year that will still be read widely twenty years later? Probably about half a dozen. How many children’s books are written every year that will still be read widely and avidly twenty years later? Possible only one.

You may argue that the big writers do not bother even to try to write children’s books. You would be wrong. Most of them have tried.

Quite a long time ago, a New York publisher called Crowell Collier had what they thought was a brilliant idea. They decided to invite all the most celebrated writers in the English speaking world to write a children’s story. They would tempt them with a high fee. They would then combine all the results in one volume and they’d have a classic on their hands.

The invitations went out, and because of the high fee and the relative shortness of the task, all the writers accepted. These were big names, mind you, famous novelists, so-called giants of the literary world. I won’t mention who they were but you would know them all.

The stories came in. I saw each one of them. Only one writer, Robert Graves, had any conception of how to write for children. The rest of the stories were guaranteed to anaesthetize in two minutes flat any unfortunate child who got hold of them. They were un-publishable. The project was abandoned and the publishers lost a good deal of money.

When it comes to writing classic children’s books, women triumph over the men. They are pretty good at novels, they are better still at ghost stories, but they are best of all at children’s books.”

I would argue of course, that much has changed when it comes to women and novel-writing, poetry, painting, sculpture, plays and quite possibly classical music composition (I don’t know much about symphonies) since Roald Dahl wrote this foreword but it sure did make me feel good about the months of sweating away at my little children’s books trying to make them perfect.
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