December 2003

Chris Zammarelli

banned bookslut

Parents and Schoolteachers are the Enemy

It boggles my mind a bit that James and the Giant Peach is number 56 on ALA's list of The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 199020001, yet Charlie & the Chocolate Factory generally seems to fly under the radar.

Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, to me, is the more gruesome work. Granted, the evil abusive aunts Sponge and Spiker in James and the Giant Peach are crushed to death by said oversized fruit, but is that really more disturbing than the poetic justice that awaits the four children in Willy Wonka's factory? At least the aunts aren't taunted in song after their collective demise.

Not that most kids who read the works of Roald Dahl are bothered by such distinctions. There's a dark, cartoonish quality to his childrens book that gloss over the unseemly side of his work. They remind me of Wile E. Coyote cartoons, actually. The violence is so outlandish, it's hard to take it seriously.

Dahl's morbidly off-kilter tone made him a unique voice in kidlit from the day James and the Giant Peach was first published in 1961. He also paved the way for such authors as Lemony Snicket and J.K. Rowling, whose respective works are clearly informed by his macabre children's novels.

Like Rowling, a few of Dahl's books have been targeted for using magic and witchcraft as its theme. In the case of James and the Giant Peach, a challenge was brought to the school advisory council in Indian River County, Florida, because of the story's mystical element: magic crocodile tongues given to James by a mysterious old man serve as fertilizer to his aunts' decrepit peach tree.

Some of the challenges are peculiar, to say the least. The Times of London reported that James and the Giant Peach was once banned in a Wisconsin town because a reference to Spider licking her lips could be "taken in two ways, including sexual."

Meanwhile, during a discussion of free speech, Chris Champion, the marketing director of Thackery's Bookstore in Toledo, Ohio, attested that the book had also been banned for advocating communism.

Other challenges to James and the Giant Peach are a bit more conventional. The use of the word "ass" led to a 1991 challenge in Altoona, Wisconsin. One year later, a woman in Hernando County, Florida, took issue with Grasshopper's statement, "I'd rather be fried alive and eaten by a Mexican!", as well as references to snuff, tobacco and whiskey. Her complaints to her 10-year-old daughter's school principal led to review by the regional school board.

The details of James's nasty living conditions, as well as the aforementioned deaths of Sponge and Spiker, have been criticized for too scary. In fact, it was pulled from an elementary school in Charlotte Harbor, Florida, for being inappropriate reading for children.

It also was removed from Stafford County, Virgina, schools for encouraging children to disobey adults. That the adults in question are abusive seems to have been a bit besides the point.

There's no surprise that Dahl said that parents made the ideal villans for his kids books. In an interview with The Independent just before he died, he said, "Parents and schoolteachers are the enemy. The adult is the enemy of the child because of the awful process of civilizing this thing that, when it is born, is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all."

Of course, what that says of his view towards children may explain why he does all those awful things to the kids in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Penguin USA
ISBN: 0140374248
126 pages