Roald Dahl’s Antidote to Screen Time

February 5, 2015 § 10 Comments

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald DahlLast month, we had six mornings where school was delayed because of weather (in Virginia, this translates as a dusting of snow, a threat of snow, or some ice spotted on a road). It will come as no surprise that I spent all six of these mornings reading to my kids. This is equal parts good parenting and pure laziness. When my kids storm my bedroom at 7am and learn that school is delayed by two hours (AGAIN), I want nothing less than to climb out of bed and make them breakfast. Truth be told, I don’t want to do much of anything; but I will happily settle for two soft bodies nestling into either side of me. And, building on our December success, it seems I am on a winning streak of choosing chapter books that appeal to both my four and seven year old.

I decided to begin the year with a Roald Dahl marathon, and we’ve kicked off with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I ask you this: is there a more entertaining read-aloud chapter book?

I mean, it’s quite possibly THE MOST FUN BOOK EVER.

Initially, I was tempted to skip over Charlie, because I had already read it to JP a few years ago (and I tend to suffer from the notion that, with so many fantastic chapter books waiting in the wings, I can’t afford to go back and re-read one). But then I remembered a friend telling me that her three kids love Charlie and the Chocolate Factory so much, she makes a point to read it to them every single year. And, well, my four year old had been too young to hear it the first time around. And, well, there is this large, full-color, 50th anniversary hardback edition that’s almost as yummy to behold as the sugary treats it describes.

So I thought, why not?

I wouldn’t trade anything for the fun that all three of us had reading this book! My seven year old liked it so much that he began taking it to school each day to re-read by himself. It would seem that my daughter, too, has thought of little else since we finished the book, seeing as how midway through my answering her question about what we’re going to have for dinner, she will randomly blurt out, “Can you read me the part where the boy goes into the TV again?” “Can you read about the girl who gets sucked into the garbage chute?”

What makes this story so special, so worthy of repeated readings?

First of all, let me put this out there: You want to feel like you missed your calling on the stage? You want the biggest parental ego boost of all time? Read this book aloud to your children. Dahl makes it virtually impossible not to dramatize the voices of the eccentric, fast-talking Willy Wonka; the demanding, high-pitched Veruca Salt; the irritating, know-it-all Mike Teavee; or Violet Beauregarde, with her mouth stuffed full of gum. Your children will literally be hanging on your every word (and how often does that happen?).

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald Dahl

Secondly, few books conjure up such imaginative delights as a river of melted chocolate (into which you can dip your glass); an elevator that goes sideways as well as up and down; or such enticing, if bizarre delicacies as Magic-Hand Fudge (“when you hold it in your hand, you taste it in your mouth”), Cavity-Filling Caramels (“no more dentists”), Wriggle-Sweets (“that wriggle delightfully in your tummy after swallowing”), and—my personal favorite—“square candies that look round”:

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald Dahl

(HA! Gets me every time.)

And then there’s Dahl’s exceptional craftsmanship as a storyteller: his pacing; his flair for the dramatic; and his ability to engender in us the most heart-aching empathy for kind, virtuous, starving Charlie and his impoverished family. It’s the ultimate rags-to-riches story (I’m sorry, Cinderella has nothing on Charlie; was she rewarded with an entire chocolate factory?).

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald Dahl

It’s also a story packed with cautionary tales, as vices like greed and selfishness are punished in the most creative and appropriate of ways (or, as JP is now fond of saying—cue maniacal laugh—“She got what she deserved!”). If only real life worked out so neatly.

It’s embedded in one of these cautionary parables—in the Television-Chocolate Room, to be precise—that parents will find perhaps the most delicious treat of all. Young Mike Teavee, obsessed with spending all of his free time in front of the television, cannot resist the temptation to insert himself in place of the chocolate bars in Willy Wonka’s latest invention: a machine that sucks up giant candies and teleports them into the television—where, when extracted, they remain miniaturized.

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald Dahl

To mark the fate of Mike Teavee—now being carted away by the Oompa Loompas in hopes of salvation via the Stretching Machine—we are treated to a song, one of four sung in the book by the mischievous, moralistic Oompa-Loompas. The lyrics begin (and I find the tune of “Yankee Doodle” works quite well):

The most important thing we’ve learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set—
Or better still, just don’t install
The idiotic thing at all.

What are the dangers of said television set?

[Children] loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone’s place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they’re hypnotized by it,
Until they’re absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.

So what advice do the Oompa Loompas have? What could possibly take the place of screen time? Oh, you knew this was coming:

So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A loverly bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks—
Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They’ll now begin to fill the need
Of having something good to read.
And once they start—oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts. They’ll grow so keen
They’ll wonder what they’d ever seen
In that ridiculous machine…

…And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald Dahl

Consider this Roald Dahl’s gift to all parents: that a book filled with chocolate should also persuade our kids that TV isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Is Dahl’s book (like most of what was written for children in the 1960s) a little odd? Yes. Without question. Deliciously so. On what planet can or should a boy survive on sweets alone, and in what modern age are we meant to endorse indentured servitude (because what else are you calling the Oompa-Loompas?). There’s plenty that’s not PC (I’ll never be comfortable with the repeated use of the descriptor “fat,” and I’ve talked to my kids about that). Perhaps such a manuscript would never even see publication today. But what a tragedy that would be.

Because, really, taking Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in its entirety, was there ever a more compelling case made (for children and adults), to open a book, to fall in love with larger-than-life characters and strange, wonderful events—instead of zoning out in front of a screen?

Of course, shuttling our kids off to school when the two-hour weather delays are over feels pretty great, too.

My Other Favorite Roald Dahl Books (while all are targeted at a 9-12 reading level, many can and should be read aloud to younger children, although take caution with those who scare easily, as all have more edge than Charlie):
Fantastic Mr. Fox
James and the Giant Peach
The Witches
The BFG
Matilda
Danny the Champion of the World

Sadly, I must caution you that, as every bit magical as your kids will find Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, they will be bored to tears by the sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. It pains me to say it, but skip it.

What’s your favorite Roald Dahl book?

All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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§ 10 Responses to Roald Dahl’s Antidote to Screen Time

  • We read this last year and LOVED it. And when we got to the TV song, I told my kids we were going to memorize it and adopt it as our personal family motto. 🙂 What a great review this was!

  • ChristenEnglish says:

    Great book, great post, and a great reminder that we are overdue for another reread!

  • Jill Erber says:

    We also love Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! We tried James and the Giant Peach about a year ago and I stopped because of how mean James’ aunts were. Thanks, Melissa, for talking with me about that. Your advice about obvious villains was super helpful – and we’re going to try James again!

    • thebookmommy says:

      Thanks, Jill. Building on our discussion earlier, Adam Gidwitz (author of the fantastic middle-grade series “A Tale Dark and Grim,” a kind of re-telling of Grimm’s darkest and goriest fairy tales–and hugely popular with kids) wrote a great piece for the Wall Street Journal, titled “In defense of fairy tales” (http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2012/10/14/the-forest-beckons-the-magic-of-real-fairy-tales/?blog_id=120&post_id=72061). I come back to this piece frequently–and even though it’s specifically about the darkness of fairy tales, I think it’s points can certainly be applied to some of the villains in Dahl’s books (like the abusive aunts in James and the Giant Peach, or the witches in The Witches). Actually, Dahl’s writing is quite fairy tale-esque. His villains are extreme, almost absurdly so; they are very black and white, so that kids clearly recognize them as fantastical. In contrast, his young heroes and heroines always triumph at the end because of their kind and virtuous character. As Gidwtiz writes, “For fairy tales signal clearly to children—through simple, matter of fact descriptions of unearthly events and keystone phrases like “Once upon a time”—that the land of the fairy tale is decidedly not the external world.” In other words, reading these stories to children actually reassures them, offering them a safe place in which to explore their own natural feelings of sadness or anger or betrayal or loneliness.

  • schultzfam says:

    I made the mistake of buying the edition that included both “Charlie” and “Glass Elevator.” Of course W would not let us get away with not reading the “second part of the book,” which was dreadful for all of us! I’ll need to re-buy the standalone “Charlie” and try to redeem the whole thing! I have such great Dahl memories from my own childhood–especially reading “The Witches” to myself when I was far too young for it and being afraid to stick my hand out of bed to turn out the light! Does reading get any better than that? 🙂

  • […] year, I proclaimed that Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory might be my favorite read-aloud book of all time. I think I may amend that to say that Charlie is […]

  • Cathy Bovey says:

    My all time favorite Roald Dahl book is Danny, Champion of the World! Such a heartwarming story about the relationship between a boy and his father. Plenty of humor as well.

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