To get my daughter to take a break from Pokemon Go this summer, my wife insisted she read a total of three books, and not just the comics she loves (Dork Diaries, anything by Raina Telgemeier) but something appropriate to her grade level (she is entering middle school this year). So I suggested on a pact. My daughter, my wife, and I would each pick a novel, a total of three, and share our thoughts about them when we were finished. My wife chose The BFG, because, I think, of the recent trailers for the Steven Spielberg film; I picked The Giver; and my daughter, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (for obvious reasons).
Roald Dahl is best known for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was a favorite film of mine growing up. I also liked the Tim Burton version, but not as much. He also wrote The BFG, which is, without question, a simple story written for kids. There are only two main characters to speak of, Sophie, a little orphan girl, and a twenty-four foot giant who simply goes by the name of The BFG (Big Friendly Giant). Even for children, the story is a bit straightforward, with very few surprises, aside from some unexpected gruesomeness. Everything turns out pretty much as you might expect, though that may not hold true for younger readers. Even so, I found plenty to enjoy in The BFG.
Dahl’s writing is economical and direct, so that the pages just fly by. Never once did I feel it was a chore to get through, and the plot itself consists of enough tension and intrigue to keep readers of all ages engaged. The author also likes to make up words, lots and lots of nonsensical words. Dahl is arguably the undisputed king of onomatopoeia-like wordplay. In many ways, I was reminded of Mary Poppins. Much of what happens in the story is utterly absurd. But in this way, the book possesses a child’s-eye charm, Dahl’s work being less fantasy and more of what I like to call surrealist fiction, more Alice in Wonderland than Harry Potter. Unlike Poppins or Alice, however, which unfold as a series of loosely connected events, The BGF keeps to a single narrative, with a definite beginning, middle and end. There are no trivial, throw-away chapters here. That being said, the ending struck me as something written not by a renown author, but by a kid. I imagine the author sitting with his daughter or granddaughter, asking her how he should complete his novel. Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you, as I feel it added to the book’s absurdist charm.
While The BFG isn’t quite on the level of The Never Ending Story or even Charlotte’s Web, I enjoyed it more than Alice in Wonderland or Mary Poppins, and a lot more than A Wrinkle in Time. With a story like The BFG, a lot depends on age, and I would guess that it is likely to appeal more to children under nine. Then again, what do I know? I’m just a jaded, 40 year old writer. So let’s see what my 11 year old, Jasmine, had to say.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
Nick: Jasmine, how did you like The BFG?
Jasmine: I liked it. I like how The BFG bottled dreams and blew them into children’s bedrooms. Also, how he was able to mix dreams together to make new ones.
Nick: Yes, it was a lot of fun reading about those dreams. Dahl seems to have a great mind for the absurd. Which was your favorite?
Jasmine: I liked the dream about the boy who pressed his bellybutton and turned invisible. His parents kept freaking out because they couldn’t see him!
Nick: Yeah, that was a good one. But I have to go with the kid who wrote a book that people literally couldn’t stop reading. Pilots were crashing planes because they were too busy reading it, and surgeons were doing surgery while reading it. Those dreams were a nice addition to the story, but it begs the question as to why The BFG collected them in the first place. The author never really tells you.
Hynde (my wife): I wasn’t crazy about that part either. I was bothered by a lot of the logical inconsistencies. For instance, the giant kidnaps Sophie, because she is the only person (in hundreds of years) to have ever seen him. I guess I found that a bit implausible. Also, according to the story, giants eat people (adults and kids) on a nightly basis, but this goes largely unnoticed by the public.
Nick: I agree with the logical issues, but it didn’t bother me much, I think because I was reading it as something written not only for kids, but by a kid. The questions you raise are ones children typically don’t ask, or don’t care to have answered. Also, since a lot of the book focuses on dreams, I half expected the “it-was-all-just-a-dream” ending. Typically, these are the worst kinds of endings, but in The BGF, it might actually have worked. At any rate, the story had a dream-like quality to it, where things don’t really make sense, especially toward the end. Did any of that bother you, Jasmine?
Jasmine: Not really.
Nick: So, what was everyone’s favorite part?
Jasmine: The dreams!
Hynde: I like how The BFG created a nightmare for the Queen of England, so that she would become aware of the giants who were eating kids. That was clever.
Nick: Yes, that was good stuff, and I’d like to add how surprisingly gruesome the whole “eating of children thing” was. I can’t imagine a publisher today accepting such a premise for a kid’s book. It reminded me a lot of Grimm’s fairytales, where Cinderella’s sisters are cutting off their toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper. As my favorite part, I loved it when they went to look for giant country, and the helicopter pilots realized they had flown “off the atlas.” They were pointing at a blank page, saying, “we must be somewhere here.” That kind of nonsense is something Dahl does really well, and it lets you know not to take the book too seriously (or literally). I also love Dahl’s puns, especially when The BGF tells the Queen how the other (evil) giants had gone to Baghdad to “bag dad”—after they had eaten a father along with his family!
Final Score (Out of Four Stars)
Jasmine: ** 1/2
Hynde: * 1/2