Re-Discovering James and the Giant Peach

I have a three-year-old.  I’ve raised three daughters – and written about reading aloud with them here.  I’ve looked forward to writing about reading aloud anew – from the trenches – with my three-year-old son.  And the moment has finally arrived.

My wife and I didn’t push it.  Our young son is a boy – and full of all the energy and rough-house instincts we’ve seen in lots of other little boys.  As he’s grown we’ve read (and continue to read) the full slate of picture books – from board books like Good Night, Gorilla to all the old favorites: Ferdinand; Bread and Jam for Frances; Little Bear; Robert McCloskey…  The full corpus of Kevin Henkes.  And William Steig.  Babar.  Even Star Wars.

A question often asked of me is, When do you start reading chapter books?  And my best answer is: When they’re ready.  Could be 2.  Could be 3.  Could be 4. Might not be until 5 or 6.
But you have to try.  Not religiously. Not pushing it.  Little different than graduating from bottles and sippy cups.  Or tying your shoes.  Ideally you follow their lead.

Of course we have lots of books around.  (They’re not all down at the office.)  Even if we haven’t read a kid’s chapter book out loud in a few years.  They’re still on the shelf.  Calling.
My wife tried Charlotte’s Web.  Couldn’t get past the complexity of the Zuckerman’s Farm characters.  She tried Because of Winn-Dixie.  Interesting when the dog is the protagonist.  Not so much when Opal is meeting her adult friends in town.

Probably it was too early.  We put ‘em down.  Their time will come.

And then – early in the New Year – we struck gold with an unexpected source.  Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.  Unexpected?  Yes.

Here’s the backstory:  Of course I love Roald Dahl.  (I still remember when my elementary school librarian read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – and Charlottes’s Web – and that’s going back to 1973!)  As a parent and educator I especially love some of the later gems like The BFG and The Witches.  Perhaps that’s my taste.  But that’s why they’re OSOB selections.

But I was never a big fan of James and the Giant Peach.  Why?  I’m not entirely sure.  Many, many people love it.  It’s Dahl’s first book for children.  But I have found it hard to read aloud.  Despite my paeans and tips on how to create voices and differentiate characters – I have always found the voices in James and the Giant Peach to be difficult.  Not the Aunts.  They’re easy.  They’re cartoons.  But the bugs in the Peach are not easy.  They’re all adults.  But they’re all a little arch, a little fey, a little British.  One character like that is easy to communicate to a child as a foil.  But a peach full of six of them?  I’ve always found them a challenge.

Having said that, I still know that the book contains some Dahl’s most famous and effective descriptions.  I have long used a sample from James and the Giant Peach in my reading tips.  To   illustrate my tip on vocabulary – specifically my suggestion that the reader seek out and highlight or emphasize (subtly or grandly) descriptive words – I read Chapter 9 – when James seeks out on a dewy moonlit night – and arrives at the full grown Peach all alone.  And discovers the entrance.
[You can listen to that tip – and that description – here.]

But the book remains popular.  And the film adaptation – despite adding some material – and some original songs – is faithful in tone, faithful to the characters – a worthy animated pleasure.
In response to popular demand, I resolved to add James to Read to Them’s Recommended Title list.  And was pleasantly surprised to discover what a joy it was to read Roald Dahl’s original prose.  His sentences were elegant.  His word choices brisk and pointed and memorable.  His dialogue with the reader arch and brisk, witty and edgily moralistic.  Not only did the book not feel dated or 50 years old – it felt really like catching up with an old friend.

What does the ocean look like to James?  “A long thin streak of blackish-blue, like a line of ink, along the rim of the sky.”

Dahl excels at describing movement – the sound and images that pulse vibrantly and teem with life and heighten the vicarious reader’s curiosity:

“James stared into the bag, and sure enough there was a faint rustling sound coming up from inside of it, and then he noticed that all the thousands of little green things were slowly, very very slowly stirring about and moving over each other as though they were alive.”

Dahl observes and calls attention and brings to life just the very details that a child would attend to.  I am similarly reminded of the mysterious dreams captured in jars in The BFG – which pulse and change colour ephemerally.

The reader is dying to go inside the Peach – but what does it feel like on the outside?  “It felt soft and warm and furry, like the skin of a baby mouse.”  Want to know what it feels like?  James does too and Dahl’s prose is positively tactile: “He moved a step closer and rubbed his cheek lightly against the soft skin.”  Can you feel it, too?

What’s it like to be the calm, resourceful one amid a bunch of oversized querulous insects? “Their eyes waited upon him, tense, anxious, pathetically hopeful.”

And Dahl does drama – without indulging or wasting words, paper, or time: “There was a squelch.  The needle went in deep.  And suddenly there was the Giant Peach, caught and spiked upon the every pinnacle of the Empire State Building.”  Unforgettable.

Beautiful, no?  But does that mean it could work with a 3-1/2-year-old?

Maybe I brought my newfound sense of discovery and pleasure to it.  Maybe I read it more patiently.  Maybe I found ways to appreciate and love the creatures in the Peach – the silly Centipede whom James seems to relate to; the lovely Spider who shelters and comforts James; the elegant Old Green-Grasshopper – the acme of avuncular.

All books have those moments you are looking forward to – funny moments, scary moments, grand triumphant moments, tension-filled moments resolved by imagination and courage and resourcefulness.

For James and the Giant Peach these are those early moments:

What will your child do when James’ parents are killed in the first paragraph?  Does the ridiculous spectre of “an escaped rhinocerous” somehow mitigate or distract from the catastrophe of orphanhood?  Or does it instantly trigger a kindred sympathy in the reader/listener?

How will he respond to the unrelenting and unrelieved awfulness of the Aunts?  It made him sit up and resent them – on behalf of James – with all his being.  It made him alert.

What about when James loses the bag of magic crystals?  Can nothing ever go right for him?
One obviously looks forward with delight for the opportunity to describe the appearance and growth of the Peach.  Read for maximize empathic effect.

And then James gets to that Peach – and he gets inside of it – and we discover a whole new world – a whole new sensibility – with voices and eccentricities – and can you differentiate the characters – and can he keep them all straight.  It is an awful lot.  It is a new book.

And then the Peach leaves – and the Aunts get their comeuppance.  And macabre as it is for Dahl to kill them off summarily – it remains satisfying to every child.  The Peach rolls over the dastardly Aunts and smushes them.  Yes!  Such triumph and satisfaction is good for 50 pages of good will.

And that’s only the first third of the book!  The ocean – and the sharks – and the seagulls – and the Cloudmen – and New York City all await.

So how did he take it?  For the first time – he bought in.  He was enthralled.  His interest – his concern – his curiosity – were not only engaged.  They were sustained.

First of all – he related to James.  He wanted only the best for him.  And nothing bad.  He even relished James’ vengeance.

He also cared about James’ friendships.  His affinity for the Centipede – who he laughed with.  The gentle, loving support of Miss Spider

And he admired James’ resourcefulness.  His can-do response to the problem of the sharks.
He bought in also to the notion of not knowing what could happen next.  A man shows up w/ a bag of crystals?  A Giant Peach grows out of nowhere?  A room full of new characters.  Who are they all?  One of them is funny?  Some of them are really nice.  James escapes!  The Peach rolls into the ocean.  Sharks?  Seagulls!

I think he clearly grasped the unconscious notion that the pleasure you retain – as a reader – in something that has already happened – “What happened to the Aunts?” “They got smushed by the Peach” – can carry your interest and patience and expectation and fortitude for the next thing.  It might be sweet – it might be funny – it might be scary – it might be colorful or active.  But there will be a next thing.  It will be entertaining.  It will be interesting.  And it will be worth it.  That’s how books work.

I think that there is nothing like seeing a child sit up, attentive, listening, mouth open, conjuring in their mind what is happening from the words read on the page – expecting, hoping, wishing, dreading, remembering.

It is different than a child in your arms safely turning familiar if endlessly entertaining rich illustrated pages.  Not different better.  But different.  A little bit of it is growing up.  A little bit of it us unsafe.  He doesn’t know what will happen next.  That little trepidation is being a reader.  It is life.

So he made it through – and it was worth it.  For him.  For me.  For his mother.  A collected series of moments and memories.  A milestone.

Will he remember it?  In my experience, children under four do not retain well the details of experiences like these.  He’ll remember something – but whether it’s the rhinocerous or the sharks or the Empire State Building I don’t know.  He will remember Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker – I am sure of that.

What makes it worth it?  Oh, so many things.  That kind of sitting still concentrated attention span is priceless.  The ability to conjure the action – the characters – to flesh out the story in their mind – also priceless.  And now we have a shared story – characters, moments, fears, resolution.  Maybe even some memorable lines, too.  (The Centipede prides himself on being a pest!)

But we’ve also established a premise – a foundation to build on.  Yes we still have picture books – our own and the Library’s.  And yes someday he’ll read on his own.  But in between – we have this lovely, special, imaginative, shared habit to fall back on.

We’ve since read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  And Fantastic Mr. Fox.  And The BFG.  And have just re-opened Charlotte’s Web.  And he’s the one who asks.  “Mama, can we read Charlotte’s Web tonite?”

He’s got the habit.  When he was ready.  Thank you, Roald Dahl.  Thank you for 50 years.  And I suspect, my son’s children will be thanking you someday, too.


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