The names change but Roald Dahl's undead stories endure

A few decades ago many teachers thought him not a 'classic' but a pest

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It is hardly a surprise to learn that the books children want to read and the books adults ask them to read do not always coincide.

Neither can we assume that the non-appearance of Roald Dahl on a hot-favourites chart – while he remains at the top of a most-read list – hints at classes of groaning schoolkids being dragged in torment through compulsory sessions with Matlida, James, Charlie and the good old BFG. Joint leader of the latter table is Jeff Kinney, as much (if not more) a children’s rather than a teacher’s pet with his Wimpy Kid school romps.

Still, this mismatch between the crazes of the moment and the stalwarts that become a fixture on reading lists and library shelves tells a story of its own. It wasn’t that long ago and far away, remember, that the Grumpy Mr Dahl – a big if not terribly friendly giant of juvenile literature – looked like the last word in early-years subversion. With his bizarrely outsized minors, genuinely scary adult villains and taste for fantastic and grotesque action, he shocked arbiters of youthful taste.

Indeed, you can find in his work ample evidence of both sadistic ultra-violence and the class politics of envy. Rewind a few decades and many teachers thought Dahl not a “classic” but a pest.

Now it seems noteworthy to find the Welsh-Norwegian spellbinder at the head of an official honour-board but not in the front rank of current hits. But last year’s upset becomes next year’s set text. It was ever thus.

Meanwhile, look at the boom in teenage vampires: first Stephenie Meyer; now Rachel Caine. Dahl drew on one pack of Gothic and folkloric archetypes. The new-wave bloodsuckers employ another. The  authors’ names may change, but the undead stories endure.

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