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maltatoday, SUNDAY, 18 SEPTEMBER 2016 17 Unapolegtic about life I nterestingly, the writer's influence is not constrained by language, and Maltese children's writer Clare Azzopardi explained that although she was not entirely conscious of it, many of Dahl's characters had influenced her own creations. "The protagonists for my children's books are all children. Ġużeppina, the girls in Mingu, Jake Cassar and Mandy and Wendy. The DeMolizz Brothers who are wicked and hate children and try to get rid of all their schools and dreams. Yes there is something of Dahl's magic there," she laughs. Like Fenech, Azzopardi also points out that Dahl's stories were unapologetic about life and the difficulties people might have to face like bullying, poverty, the death of parents and terrible headmasters or head- mistresses. "In Dahl's world, things can go wrong, sometimes repeatedly, but there can always be one stroke of good luck, that little bit of magic, that one golden ticket if you will, that dream which is solely yours," she says, adding that it is this mixture of reality and imagination that makes his stories so highly pertinent. "They tell children – just like Sophie and the Big Friendly Giant – you have the right to dream and nobody can take that right away from you. You have the right to stand up against the authorities just like Matilda stands up against tyran- nous and cruel headmistress Miss Trunchbull. And you have the right to be nasty to people who are nasty, just like George reacting to his horrid grand- mother in George's Marvellous Medicine." Azzopardi also says that Dahl's writings never sought to be patronising or moralis- ing towards children who might be reading them, something that becomes blatantly clear in the gender roles depicted. Think of the spunky Sophie from the BFG and Ma- tilda from the eponymous novel. Indeed Dahl's work offers up a varied cast of young heroines to admire. A moral lesson L ikewise, renowned Maltese writer Trevor Zahra, who has reached something of a royal status in the local literary scene himself, suggests that the sense of never looking down at children also informs the actual language Dahl uses in his novels. "Dahl is never concerned or afraid of using complicated or invented vocabulary. He has absolute faith that his young readers will be creative enough to understand him and en- joy those aspects of his work," he says. Perhaps it is no coincidence then that Zahra's literary style evokes a keen sense of the fantastical and whimsical that is remi- niscent of Dahl's works - an influence to which Zahra freely admits. "One of the things he definitely taught me is never to underestimate readers whether they are children or adults." Zahra makes particular reference to the bizarre worlds created in Dahl's works for adults, including the 1979 short story collection Tales of the Unexpected. Despite their undoubtedly light and en- tertaining structure, Dahl's novels also had some moral lessons to teach youngsters. Quoting Philip Pullman's Carnegie Medal acceptance speech in 1995, University of Malta children's literature lecturer, Dr. Gi- uliana Fenech told me: "All stories teach, whether the storyteller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by. They teach it much more effectively than moral precepts and instructions, and Dahl's work is no ex- ception." "They teach us that we are able to triumph no matter what obstacles our perceived weaknesses or our disempowering social positions bring," she says. His stories continue to remind us that it is okay to laugh at life, and above all to be dar- ing, to dream big and to hope that we can achieve what others may say is well beyond us. Rachel Lombardo also agrees that Dahl's focus on the outcast and on eccentricities means that young readers realise that be- ing unique can be truly magical in a world where everyone is expected to blend in. She reminds us: "Another lesson that chil- dren can learn from his books is that looks can be deceiving. Think about the scary gi- ant and how friendly he is with Sophie in the BFG, or on the flipside about how awful the beautiful witches are from The Witches." But beyond the morals and lessons, Clare Azzopardi thinks that Dahl could also teach aspiring writers a thing or two about his re- markable storytelling. "His plots move forward effortlessly and he is a master of twists and of using the third as well as the first person narrator. This makes him an excellent model to fol- low, especially for writers who are just start- ing out," she says. But despite the fact that his works have now reached a quasi-canonical status, Dahl was no stranger to controversy, both in the novels he wrote, and in the comments made in his personal life. Critics have at different times taken issue against the [spoiler alert] unpardoning end- ing in The Witches, where our beloved pro- tagonist (known only as the narrator) is nev- er seen coming back into his human form. While others have criticised the physical punishment doled out to some of the nastier characters throughout the novels. Indeed the bizarre, horrid events depicted in some of the novels led some to question whether the works ought to be handed out to children at all. But perhaps some of these more unconven- tional aspects of his work can be explained through his even more unconventional and often tragic personal life. As Fenech puts it, Dahl used stories to share his experience of life and to connect more meaningfully to others - most of all with his own children. In fact, a look at his own history reveals the reason behind the fascination with bereaved characters and the cruel if spectacular physi- cal punishment placed on some of his char- acters. Dahl had traumatic experiences at board- ing school where physical torture was com- mon. He had to endure the death of his sister and his daughter at a young age. The trauma resulting from the sickness that plagued his son and wife, as well as the war that he was unwillingly called to participate in no doubt cast its pall on his mental disposition. It was these dark events that laid many of the foun- dations for the stories we have grown to love over the years. Fenech says that Dahl was influenced by real life events as much as literary ones. But whilst he may have held some offensive views - his memory has also been tarnished by suggestions that Dahl might have been a Hitler apologist and an anti-Semite - there are still plenty of mostly redeeming mes- sages in his books. "Claims that he was racist and anti-Semitic are followed by accounts that he expressed himself clumsily in these matters and was quick to offer subsequent apologies," says Fenech. "Beyond these claims, which de- serve to be considered in more detail when studying his influence, I think it is safe to say that his storytelling legacy remains a positive and exemplary one." Perhaps the true legacy is in just watching a child read a Dahl book today, she adds. "Hearing children giggle as they listen to descriptions of the Twits and watching them rejoice as Charlie finds that Golden Ticket, while James escapes Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge climbing aboard the gi- ant peach, is testimony to the power of sto- ries and the joy that they bring." Dahl • 100 years maltatoday, SUNDAY, 18 SEPTEMBER 2016 17 the fantastical and whimsical that is remi- In Dahl's world, things can go wrong, sometimes repeatedly, but there can always be one stroke of good luck, that little bit of magic, that one golden ticket Dahl is never concerned or afraid of using complicated or invented vocabulary. He has absolute faith his young readers will be creative enough to understand him Golden Hollywood: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on the silver screen with Gene Wilder in the part of Willy Wonka George's Marvellous Medicine: the Quentin Blake illustrations became a hallmark of Roald Dahl's characters

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