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A few years ago, I agreed to take my young daughter to her first comic book convention. We’re a geeky family, so she’d been wanting to attend one for a while, but she was dead-set on attending in costume. Actually, she wanted us both to go in costume.
She debated her ideas for a few days: Should we be Batman and Batgirl? Harry and Hermione? Doc and Marty? She couldn’t decide. Finally, I told her, “People who cosplay put all of that effort into their costumes because they’re dressing up as characters that they really, really love. So, if you want us to go in costume, you have to pick something that you truly love. You should pick your favorite thing.”
My daughter paused. And, after 5 seconds of contemplation, she declared, “We’re going as Sophie and the BFG.”
The debate was over. If forced to choose the 2 characters that she loved most in the world for our father-daughter costumes, they had to be the 2 main characters from Roald Dahl’s children’s novel, The BFG. No question. How could it be anything else?
I smiled, happy that one book could inspire so much affection from my daughter, and then immediately thought, “Oh man, how the heck do you make a Big Friendly Giant costume?” (The final result was so-so. Most of the people at the convention thought I was a Hobbit. But, I will forever be grateful to the 2 women who approached us and said, “Wow, are you 2 the BFG and Sophie?” because they made my daughter’s year.)
I will forever be grateful to the 2 women who approached us and said, “Wow, are you 2 the BFG and Sophie?”
My cosplay inadequacies aside, this all begs the question, why does my daughter love The BFG so much?
It’s not Dahl’s most famous work. It’s not about candy and doesn’t have 2 blockbuster movie adaptations like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (Although we are getting Steven Spielberg’s take on The BFG this weekend.) It doesn’t have a Broadway musical or a telepathic heroine getting revenge on a mean principal like Matilda does. And it doesn’t have the same bite as some of his darker, funnier works like Revolting Rhymes or The Twits.
So, what is it about The BFG that makes my kid treasure it above all other Roald Dahl books?
I think she loves The BFG so much because it’s one of the best stories ever about being lonely.
Everyone knows what it feels like to feel lonely. To feel isolated, alone. To wake up at 3 in the morning and wonder if you’re the only person awake, feeling what you’re feeling, in the whole wide world.
That’s why Roald Dahl created Sophie, I think. She’s the perfect analog for kids who feel isolated. She’s an orphan, she constantly finds herself up at night, wondering about her place in the world, and then the best thing happens — she meets another lonely person. But this person is a grown-up, a giant grown-up, and Sophie begins to realize that loneliness doesn’t always have to be a solitary experience.
The BFG completely explodes how children think about being lonely. He’s a mythical creature, he’s literally larger-than-life, and yet, much like every child in the world, he feels different, he’s bullied, he feels like he doesn’t have any friends. That’s a powerful idea for a children’s fantasy novel. The idea that even the creatures that used to terrorize mankind in fairy tales — the same kind of “bad guys” that chased Jack down the beanstalk — could feel just as awkward, friendless, and lonely as we do.
But this person is a grown-up, a giant grown-up, and Sophie begins to realize that loneliness doesn’t always have to be a solitary experience.
If Sophie had met another child to share her loneliness, that would be one thing, but instead, Dahl introduces her to a legend, a supposedly fictional character, and they immediately feel a kindship based on their shared feelings of isolation.
That totally demystifies loneliness for children — if a giant can be lonely, why not their parents, their teachers, their bullies? — allowing Dahl to tell his readers, in the biggest friendliest way possible, “You are not alone.”
How can a kid not love that?
And, then, after they meet, what do Sophie and the BFG do? They find a way, through compassion and cleverness, to solve their mutual problems. They fight back against their bullies by talking rationally to adults, and the adults … get this … listen. Not only does Sophie discover a kindred spirit — who just happens to be an awesome giant who delivers good dreams to children — but, thanks to her friendship with the BFG, she is given a voice and is able to talk to adults in authority about her problems and they help. They take Sophie and her fantastic friend seriously. And, after that, things get better.
Talk about a fantasy for kids. Talk about childhood wish-fulfillment.
I understand why my daughter loves The BFG so much. Because as much as any kid would enjoy a chocolate factory or a giant peach, those concepts simply can’t compete with a child finding out that maybe they’re not as alone as they think they are or that maybe adults sometimes do listen or that maybe even amazing, imaginary creatures can feel exactly the same way we do sometimes. It’s a big idea, a GIANT idea, and it’s no wonder that children have been falling in love with it since 1982.
Tom Burns is the founder of BuildingaLibrary.com, a website devoted to helping parents find the right books for their kids, and has served as a contributing editor for 8BitDad.com and The Good Men Project. He has contributed as a writer for Brightly.