Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Appetizer: Ooh, sweet, sweet enjoyment and childhood memories. I remember absolutely loooving this book when I was a second-third-fourth-no-definitely-second-or-third grade-ish age.
I remember that this book kept me up late, reading into the night and that I fell asleep with my cheek on the page. I felt insanely jealous of Matilda because she was younger than me and a genius. I wanted her ability to move objects with her eyes and would practice, hoping to feel the hands extend from my eyes too.
So, having all these lovey-dovey feelings for this book made it hard to reread as an adult and look at the book critically (but was still a great experience, since I recommend my students do such an exercise if they are interested). Now it turns out, Matilda stands up to the test of time (one of the greatest tests out there). But it was strange, because I still found things to be critical of (like having more of a hint that magical powers were possible earlier in the story...but then, there are already many other aspects of the book that involve suspension of disbelief. Plus, a sudden turn to fantasy is kind of Dahl's thing.) The British vocabulary could throw some young American readers for a loop. I don't remember having a problem with it when I was a kid. But when I discussed the book with some of my undergrads, they said they had trouble with the language difference.
For those of you who missed this novel, five-year-old Matilda doesn't really fit in with the rest of her family. Her father, a used-car salesman, mother, a bingo player, and brother all love to watch TV, and Matilda--who taught herself to read and do math--prefers spending her afternoons in the library, where she has already gone through all of the children's books. When Matilda finally gets to start school, it becomes clear to her wonderful new teacher, the aptly named Miss Honey, that Matilda is special, put the Headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, won't let Matilda learn at her own level. In fact, Miss Trunchbull is unjust toward many of the students. As with her family, Matilda takes it upon herself to get back at those who wrong her and the people she cares about.
Part of what makes Matilda so fun is how horrible the villains of the book are to her. They're so vile toward the seemingly-powerless children, that as young readers (or child-like adults, in my particular case) you immediately empathize with Matilda. I had the same reaction to the Dursleys in the first Harry Potter book. These young protagonists' families are just so mean to them that as a reader I feel so super frustrated by their situations that I'm completely drawn into the story. And so, it's that much more satisfying when the kids gain the upper-hand and take back power from the horrible, evil, vile adults.
I assigned Matilda as the first reading assignment to my undergrads. While I usually go more old school with Grimm tales and Aesop's fables, I thought Matilda opens up the discussion on literacy, love of reading, perception of teachers, feeling powerless, gender in children's literature, etc. My students seemed to like the story (aside from the pesky British spellings). When I turned the discussion to the way gender was presented, they acknowledged that the way femininity was presented wasn't exactly ideal. And while the guys in the class admitted to liking the story, they also admitted that if they were still in grade school, there would have been no way they would have picked up the edition of the book with the pink cover. No way.
"It's a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.
Some parents go further. They become so blinded by adoration they manage to convince themselves their child has qualities of genius.
Well, there is nothing very wrong with all this. It's the way of the world. It is only when parents begin telling us about the brilliance of their own revolting offspring, that we start shouting, "Bring us a basin! We're going to be sick!" (p. 7).
"It was pleasant to take a hot drink up to her room and have it beside her as she sat in her silent room reading in the empty house in the afternoons. The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India and Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village." (p. 21)
"She resented being told constantly that she was ignorant and stupid when she knew she wasn't. The anger inside her went on boiling and boiling, and as she lay in bed that night she made a decision. She decided that every time her father or her mother was beastly to her, she would get her own back in some way or another. A small victory or two would help her to tolerate their idiocies and would stop her from going crazy. You might remember that she was still hardly five years old and it is not easy for somebody as small as that to score points against an all-powerful grown-up. Even so, she was determined to have a go. Her father, after what had happened in front of the telly that evening, was first on her list." (p. 29).
"The village school for younger children was a bleak brick building called Crunchem Hall Primary School. It had about two hundred and fifty pupils aged from five to just under twelve years old. The head teacher, the boss, the supreme commander of this establishment was a formidable middle-aged lady whose name was Miss Trunchbull.
Naturally Matilda was put in the bottom class, where there were eighteen other small boys and girls about the same age as her. Their teacher was called Miss Honey, and she could not have been more than twenty-three or twenty-four." (p. 66).
Tasty Rating: !!!!!