"Hopeless." That was how Roald Dahl's longtime editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Stephen Roxburgh, described an early draft of the cantankerous author's last long chapter book for children. And once Dahl, who was in poor health and his early 70s, was honest with himself, he, too, realized the novel was all wrong. He started it over again — the first time in his long and celebrated career he ever had to do so. However, the fact that Roxburgh was right did not stop Dahl from pulling the book and taking it to Penguin.
This month, the novel Dahl eventually published, about a 5-year-old genius with telekinetic powers who outsmarts her nincompoop parents and repugnant headmistress, celebrates its 25th anniversary. Matilda has undergone numerous cover revamps, spawned a 1996 movie, and inspired an acclaimed musical that made its Broadway debut this April. Even in its final form, in which (unlike in Dahl's early draft) the heroine does not die after gambling on horses, the humor of Matilda has an edge to it. Matilda's neglectful parents don't want her; her headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, is a bully; and until she forms a friendship with her teacher, Ms. Honey, she is very much by herself in the world — except for her books. The first time I read Matilda, I had a perm and huge pink glasses sliding down my nose. Since then, I have found Matilda Wormwood in Hermione Granger, Violet Baudelaire, and every other hero whose first impulse is to solve problems with the power of her brain.
As children we read to escape — to enter fantasy worlds where a bespectacled boy can discover he's a wizard or a brave girl can find a magical passage through a wardrobe. But we also read to find reflections of ourselves. Matilda was the first novel in which I, a shy, bookish child, saw myself. It didn't matter that I was growing up on a farm in rural New Hampshire and she lived in an English village. I was her. She was me. I was right there beside her as she read alone in her room, sipping from a cup of hot chocolate. When "books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives," I went with her, too.
After I realized that there were other kids who had read and loved her story, I was disappointed and a little indignant. Matilda was my book. I felt like someone had sold me the Brooklyn Bridge. But by my zillionth reading, I welcomed the kindred spirits. The other kids who got it, who understood why this novel was so (dare I say?) sacred, began to feel like members of the same club instead of competition. Matilda captures how Dahl trusted his readers to appreciate the subversive. You got it if you laughed at the ridiculousness of the Trunchbull insisting she was never a baby or the fantastic way the narrator takes apart parents who fail to recognize that "their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine."
In Matilda's craftiness and magical talents, I (and countless other indoor kids) found the promise that someday my reading, my easy friendships with adults, and my natural inclination toward solitude would all pay off. Though I had no need to play tricks on my parents as Matilda does to hers, and my efforts to move objects with my mind might not have worked out as hoped, I did take away an important lesson from my frequent rereadings. Mrs. Wormwood might tell Miss Honey, "Looks is more important than books," but Matilda's success makes obvious how wrong she is. It's books that pay off in the end.
That Matilda was quiet and polite was a welcome change from all the precocious heroines I encountered in most of my other reading. After Matilda, I discovered and fell in love with Claudia Kincaid from E.L. Konigsburg's "From the Mixed-Up Files of Ms. Basil E. Frankweiler" and Mary Anne from Anne M. Martin's "Baby-Sitters Club" series.
Matilda's dilemma of being smarter than the adults in her life is an exaggeration of the aggravations most children feel at their lack of control over their world. Childhood is not all candy stores and recess; it's frustrations and confusions, too. "The fact remained," Dahl wrote, "that any 5-year-old girl in any family was always obliged to do as she was told, however asinine the orders might be." Being at the mercy of adults is maddening. You are stuck in this little body that will not let you reach the counter, and are always being told "get down from there" or "that book is too old for you." Normal children are forced to yell, throw tantrums or sulk in the face of injustice, but Matilda gets to use her telekinesis for revenge after the Trunchbull falsely accuses her of a putting a newt in her water pitcher. Her victory is a victory for any child who has had to follow "asinine orders."