There’s a story — or maybe it’s an urban legend — that goes like this: children’s book author, Roald Dahl, used to wake his kids up in the middle of the night, bundle them into a cookies-and-cocoa-packed car, then drive them to the woods to look for badgers. His talent for creating adventures in his real-life only got better in his books. This master storyteller could shapeshift the ordinary into the extraordinary, transforming mundane incidents into magical events. When it comes to children’s literature, there’s just no one better. Or so Iwethought.
Turns out Dahl’s no stranger to the American Library Association’s “Frequently Challenged Books” list due to the amount of cruelty in his stories. Plus there’s ample evidence that suggests he was actually a weirdo in real life. From not-so-subtle undertones of racism and misogyny in his books to some real NSFW headscratchers he’s written (ahem, read on if you dare!), it’s clear that we’ve got to approach Dahl’s work with all the caution of an Oompa Loompa who’s seen one too many children disappear inside Wonka’s factory.
So here are the best of Roald Dahl, the stories infused with mystery, imagination, magic, and none of his BS. But keep your eyes peeled: we’ve also rounded up the worst of the worst, the WTF-were-you-thinking Roald Dahl books that you should definitely avoid showing to your kids at all costs.
Best: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 1964
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is genius for taking childhood fantasies– to be singled out and special, and to be surrounded by sweets– and making them real. What kid didn't dream of finding their very own golden ticket? As long as you don't google Dahl's early draft versions of the Oompa Loompas (hint: they were super racist), this is a pretty safe and magical read for you and your kid. Sure, as with any Dahl book there are some scary parts (maybe read a little quicker at the part where a kid drowns in the chocolate river), but the magic of all that Wonka has to offer is worth it. This is a must-read.
Worst: Revolting Rhymes, 1982
This collection of six poems reinterprets classic fairy tales, twisting them back to their Grimms-brother roots. Happily Ever Afters quickly become Horribly Ever Afters in each of the six poems. The graphic details alone make them a hard pass for young children, Jack in the Beanstock's mother physically beats him for half an hour, Snow White's stepmother hopes to skin her and slit her ribs apart, and Little Red Riding Hood goes on a shooting spree. Need another reason to avoid this book? The prince in Cinderella calls Cindy a dirty slut when he sees her in rags. C’mon, Dahl.
Best: Matilda, 1988
A super-smart young girl enacts revenge on parents and teachers who try to keep her down– like dying her dad's hair blonde and using her budding telekinesis to transport a newt into a water glass. There’s no sweeter character than Ms. Honey, and perhaps no more wicked a villain than Ms. Trunchbull. While there are plenty of parts that are absolutely terrifying (the “chokey,” for instance) I’ll argue that this is a good read for even young children. The scary parts are offset by so much love and courage from Matilda and her friends and are part of what makes the book so wonderful to read. Make sure you don't skip them.
Worst: The Minpins, 1991
The Minpins live in trees, which is cool, but they also live in a place called The Forst of Sin that is not. The main character, Billy, is warned to never ever go into the Forest of Sin but is eventually tempted to enter by the devil. Like, the actual devil, not a metaphor for the devil. This was Dahl’s last children’s book, published shortly after his death, and it kind of feels like his imagination well ran dry and he just reached for the Old Testament to dole out punishments. Definitely, one you’ll want to skip unless fire and brimstones is your thing.
Best: Fantastic Mr. Fox, 1970
Fantastic Mr. Fox is Dahl at his best (and an excellent chapter book for early readers). There’s an adventure (Boggis, Bunce, and digging deeper and deeper into Mr. Fox’s home), classic Dahl food-porn (a tremendous feast with all of Mr. Fox's animal friends), plenty of gross-factor that kids love (Bunce eats six donuts filled with goose-liver paste daily). Sure, Mr. Fox’s family structure is a little behind the times (Mr. Fox is the bread-winner, Mrs. Fox stays home with the cubs), but let’s just tell our kids that was her choice, 'k?
Worst: Switch Bitch, 1974
I’m going to assume that based on the title alone you’d never read this to your kid. But I wouldn’t recommend picking it up for yourself, either. Switch Bitch is a collection of four adult short stories about “seduction and suspense,” which, if that’s your jam, no judgment here. But parts of these stories have been criticized as “almost unbearable to read.” Dahl’s wit seems to have given way to crudity, shock for shock's sake. Bottom line? Switch Bitch is pretty offensive and just not very good writing.
Best: The BFG, 1982
There are so many heart-bursting moments of the BFG, like how the Big Friendly Giant uses his trumpet to blow good dreams into the windows of children, and the ending when Sophie and the BFG head to England together to give the Queen her dream. But I think this stays on the best-of childrens’ lists for another reason; Dahl speaks to something that’s often overlooked, which is the utter loneliness of childhood. Dahl turns a big feeling all kids (and big, giant grownups too) have into a message they can hold close to their hearts: even though you’re lonely, it doesn’t mean that you’re alone.
Worst: The Twits, 1979
The Twits are an ugly married couple who absolutely despise each other and play horrible pranks to try to get the upper hand. The biggest problem I have with this book isn’t the nastiness of the Twits, or even their animal abuse (they force pet monkeys to stand on their heads all day, and trap live birds with glue to bake into pies). My biggest issue with The Twits is the underlying message that unattractive people are ugly on the outside because they’re ugly on the inside, and good people are beautiful because they’re beautiful on the inside. This is a dangerous thought to seed into young minds and a Dahl book that should be left out of your collection.
Best: James and the Giant Peach, 1983
Ah, to be whisked away from your worries by a giant magical peach and a lovely bunch of insect BFFs. James and the Giant Peach is a book about the power of hope, and a thrilling adventure every child deserves to have imprinted on their brains. Be aware: there’s a racist line in Chapter 28 to watch out for– the grasshopper says, “I’d rather be fried alive and eaten by a Mexican!”– so make sure to talk to your kid about that when you get to it. The rest of the writing, though, is brilliant, and some of the very best of Dahl.