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Roald Dahl's secret to a good children's book: Make sure it 'enthrals the child'

Published 16th June 2021
Author Roald Dahl, seen here in 1971, wrote nearly 40 books, scripts and screenplays.
Credit: Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Getty Images
Roald Dahl's secret to a good children's book: Make sure it 'enthrals the child'
Written by Melissa Gray, CNN
Roald Dahl, the author of children's classics such as "James and the Giant Peach" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," believed in stories that enthralled young readers, getting them to love books for a lifetime.
He put those thoughts in a letter sent more than 30 years ago to a university student who had written to him on a whim. The author's letter, written a year before his death in 1990, sold at auction Tuesday for 2,200 pounds -- just over $3,000, according to Hansons Auctioneers in the United Kingdom.
"Never shelter children from the world," Dahl wrote. "The 'content' of any children's book is of no importance other than that it enthrals the child -- and thus it teaches or seduces him or her to 'like' books and to become a fit reader -- which is vital if that child is going to amount to anything in later life.
"The book-reading child will always outstrip the non-book-reading child in later life," the letter continued. "There are very few messages in these books of mine. They are there simply to turn the child into a reader of books."
The letter is dated August 2, 1989. Dahl died in November of the following year at age 74.
Christine Wotton, who is now a librarian and housekeeper in Devon, England, said in a news release from the auction house that she found Dahl's address in the back of an old library book and was surprised to elicit such a passionate response from him.
Wotton said she was writing a dissertation on Dahl's work for her literature degree at Portsmouth Polytechnic at the time.
"On a whim I asked him questions which intrigued me regarding his style and attitude towards children's literature, never really dreaming of a response," she said.
"So, I was amazed to receive a chatty double-sided, handwritten ... reply, plus another dissertation which he lent me, presumably written in his famous garden shed, discussing the importance of reading for children and referring to his newly published book 'Matilda,'" Wotton told the auction house.
Dahl is best known for his many children's books, which also include "Matilda," "Fantastic Mr Fox," "The BFG" and "The Witches." But he was also a master of the macabre short story, wrote an autobiography of his childhood and flying days, and even helped invent a medical device for children with brain injuries.
The letter is unusual because it's in a conversational style from a well-known name, and is written rather than typed, said Jim Spencer, head of books and works on paper at Hansons Auctioneers.
"It gives us an insight into Dahl's creativity and craft, his passion for making reading fun, encouraging children to pick up books and take a love of literature with them throughout the rest of their lives," Spencer said in the news release.
Wotton said she treasured the letter, but she now wanted to share it with the world -- "for others to read and enjoy his wise words which are dashed off in his wonderfully inimitable, flamboyant style."
Hansons said the letter was sold to a UK buyer.