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Banned Books Week Review: James and the Giant Peach

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To celebrate the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week here’s a review of an often challenged book.

I was not surprised when I saw James and the Giant Peach on the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books list compiled by the American Library Association. I’d never read Roald Dahl as a kid, not even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory although I’d seen the movie. That all changed this August when Penguin reissued James and the Giant Peach as a Graphic Classic Deluxe. With a great illustrated cover by comics artist Jordan Crane and introduction from author Aimee Bender, I couldn’t resist.

In her recent New York Times essay about children’s book, The Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules, Pamela Paul discussed how the now much-lauded books of Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, and Dr. Seuss were once deemed inappropriate for kids. All three authors challenged the status quo: the notion that children’s books were to teach children how to behave, not to portray them as how they actually were—rebellious, insolent, and rowdy.

A familiar trope often repeated to children is “respect your elders” and this was what was reinforced by their literature. While most of the time it’s good advice, there are exceptions to the rule. Not that kids should disrespect adults but not all adults are not worthy of deference.

When I began James and the Giant Peach I was horrified by James’s two aunts. He’d come to live with them after his parents were eaten by a rhinoceros while shopping on the streets of London—also horrifying. In no modern society would his aunts be considered fit guardians. They were undeniably abusive: they forced James into manual labor beyond what was appropriate for his age, threatened to beat him, isolated him from others, called him names, and, it appears, often neglected to feed him. The first few chapters are painful to read and will undoubtedly cause a sensitive reader to cry out in desperation for James stand up for himself.

It’s when, as Pamela Paul would say, James breaks with convention and runs away to the far end of the garden to console himself that he’s given magic seed-like things by a peculiar old man. He’s told that if he follows the instructions for preparation and swallows the seeds in one gulp “fabulous, unbelievable things” will happen and he’ll never be miserable again.

However, we never find out what would have happened if James drank the odd, magic seeds because, as Aimee describes in her introduction, in “an almost slapstick move whereby he trips, Buster Keaton-like,” he drops the seeds and they sink into the dirt at the foot of a fruit tree. Instead, what comes of the misstep is a trans-Atlantic journey in a giant peach with life-size insects.

With this turn of events, Dahl adds a twist to the classic fairy tale quest. James ultimately goes on an adventure but it’s not the one initially intended and not one of his own making. It’s a story of mishaps, coming into one’s own, developing confidence, and finding a group that appreciates you for who you are or, as Aimee eloquently puts it: it’s a story of “transformation of small things into large, of a helpless child into someone with power and agency”.

These larger themes, stemming from dark beginnings, make James and the Giant Peach a great book for both middle grade readers and adults—and an even better one if the two can share in it together.

James and the Giant Peach at IndieBound
New York Times essay The Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules
Roald Dahl’s official website
Jordan Crane’s work can be found here
Aimee Bender’s website
The American Library Association’s list of 100 most frequently challenged books: 1990 to 2000

Written by Gabrielle

September 26, 2011 at 6:05 am

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