Roald Dahl wrote much of James and the Giant Peach in verse, which is one source of the book’s humor. At one point, Centipede breaks into song about the glories of the foods he has tasted, including scrambled dregs, noodles made of poodles, and mice with rice. It is inevitable that his final stanza compares all these rare epicurean delights with the most marvelous food in the world—their home—the giant peach.
Dahl’s sharp wit and caricatures evoke laughter on a variety of levels, providing enjoyment for both adults and children. As Spiker and Sponge argue the merits of their respective beauty, younger children are reminded of the wicked stepmother’s “Mirror, mirror on the wall” rhyme in “Snow White.” For more sophisticated readers, the references to Hollywood and to film stars provide a totally different perspective based on the prior knowledge that Dahl was married to Patricia Neal, an Oscar-winning actress.
As in many of Dahl’s other books, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), the protagonist is a gentle child who has done nothing to deserve his difficult life. This idea gives rise to the book’s dominant theme—that effort eventually transcends hardship, that good overcomes evil. When the peach returns to land, James is surrounded by love and friendship, which is all he ever wanted. He is free to play and enjoy childhood, having been transformed from the saddest and loneliest child in the...
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James and the Giant Peach is a modern classic that has established a permanent position in children’s libraries. Roald Dahl frequently commented that he owed his writing success to the bedtime stories that he created for his own children, and this book reads as if the author were telling a remarkable story to a group of children sitting at his feet. The book maintains this chatty feeling throughout, which makes it a perfect read-aloud choice. Chapters are short and frequently end with cliffhangers that leave the reader, or listener, begging for more.
These attributes, and the delightful illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert, afford a sense of accomplishment for reluctant readers. For the same reasons, the book accommodates younger readers whose attention spans allow them to attempt chapter books. As a combination of fantasy and fairy tale, James and the Giant Peach provides a gratifying introduction into more difficult fantasies such as C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956), Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971), or Lynn Reid Banks’s The Indian in the Cupboard (1981).