Pros: Imaginative and Funny
Cons: Some small children might find it scary
I just read a review of James and the Giant Peach and it reminded me of my own favorite children's book, The BFG. This is the one tattered and battered old book that goes with me everywhere. It's been with me since I was about 7, when it scared me sleepless one night. I suppose it is a very dark children's book, as these things go, but even though it scared me, the good guys won in the end and I read it over and over, right up until recently when about fifty pages fell out of the very-worn binding.
The plot of this book reminds me a bit of the kind of story a harried father might make up on the fly, not realizing it might be more disturbing than anything else, because he thinks it's a fabulous story. Indeed, this one is fabulous, for many reasons. The plot involves a lot of really disgusting giants. All they do is sleep around, pick their noses, and eat young children who they snatch from their bedrooms late at night. In the midst of these giants lives one very tall, very skinny fellow who spends his days catching dreams, and blowing them into the heads of the young children who manage to not get eaten.
Enter a young orphan who can't sleep one night and sees this "big friendly giant." Because he's been seen, the giant has no choice but to grab the little tyke and take him to the land of Giants before the morning. What follows is often disgusting, often hysterical, and good for a warm smile.
Roald Dahl is probably best known for these works for children, even though his adult fiction is by far stranger and sometimes very disturbing (my college professor borrowed a short story book and has yet to give it back. Prof. Bradford, are you listening?). Part of what makes his children's books so much fun is the amount of imagination required to write something like this. This book may have started as a lesson for kids to go to bed early (all the child-eating giants come out late at night), but it became something very magical and entertaining.
Dahl uses invented vocabulary in a genius way here. "Hornswazzles" and "rabsdoodles" and "snickerbottoms" are a few typical examples. This keeps his writing silly and prevents you from taking it too seriously (if ever that was a problem). The exchanged between the orphan boy and the BFG are very well done, giving the young reader the full sense of emotions, as if this situation could actually happen. You quickly get to know this fellow, the BFG, and come to love him rather quickly. The impossibly inventive scheming that leads to their adventures is equally well written, giving the impossible a certain aura of reality that allows even the adult reader to "get into" this book on a level much greater than they are able to get into most children's books.
To my knowledge, the only illustrator to handle most of Dahl's work is Quentin Blake, whose "shaky" lined drawings capture the rather silly essence of these books remarkably well. His depiction of the BFG really does seem as one would imagine him. Because his lines are not straight and no drawing is perfectly the same, Blake manages to give us a dynamic picture of the characters rather than a static one, allowing our imaginations to remain in control of the proceedings.
The young child might have nightmares about the Bone-Crunching evil giants. I know when I was very young I had a few sleepless nights with my eyes peeled even though I knew it was just a story. For that reason I would suggest holding off on reading this book to very young children. If they are able to read it alone, I suggest you help them through it the first time (they're suer to need help with the words) and laugh a lot, to make sure they take it in the silliness with which it is intended. Overall I would suggest an 8-10 age range on this one, though I myself am 22 and still enjoy frequent quick reads of the work.
For the 10-12 set a great Dahl book is Danny the Champion of the World and I also recommend his short story collections for the adult reader- his creativity shines through in far more disturbing ways than his childrens' books allow.