Roald Dahl Biography

Author(1916–1990)
Children's author Roald Dahl wrote the kids' classics Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, among other famous works. He was married to actress Patricia Neal.

Synopsis

Roald Dahl was born on September 13, 1916, in Llandaff, South Wales. In 1953, he published the best-selling story collection Someone Like You and married actress Patricia Neal. He published the popular book James and the Giant Peach in 1961. In 1964, he released another highly successful work, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was later adapted for two films. Over his decades-long writing career, Dahl wrote 19 children's books. He died on November 23, 1990, in Oxford, England.

Early Life

Famed children's author Roald Dahl was born in Llandaff, South Wales, on September 13, 1916. Dahl's parents were Norwegian. As a child, he spent his summer vacations visiting with his grandparents in Oslo. When Dahl was 4 years old, his father died.

The young Dahl received his earliest education at Llandaff Cathedral School. When the principal gave him a harsh beating for playing a practical joke, Dahl's mother decided to enroll her rambunctious and mischievous child at St. Peter's, a British boarding school, as had been her husband's wish. Dahl later transferred to Repton, a private school with a reputation for academic excellence. He resented the rules at Repton; while there, the lively and imaginative youngster was restless and ached for adventure. While Dahl hardly excelled as a student, his mother offered to pay for his tuition at Oxford or Cambridge University when he graduated. Dahl's response, as quoted from his autobiography, Boy: Tales of Childhood, was, "No thank you. I want to go straight from school to work for a company that will send me to wonderful faraway places like Africa or China."

And that he did. After Dahl graduated from Repton in 1932, he went on an expedition to Newfoundland. Afterward, he took a job with the Shell Oil Company in Tanzania, Africa, where he remained until 1939.

Lusting for yet more adventure, in 1939, Dahl joined the Royal Air Force. After training in Nairobi, Kenya, he became a World War II fighter pilot. While serving in the Mediterranean, Dahl crash-landed in Alexandria, Egypt. The plane crash left him with serious injuries to his skull, spine and hip. Following a recovery that included a hip replacement and two spinal surgeries, Dahl was transferred to Washington, D.C., where he became an assistant air attaché.

Early Writing Career

While in Washington, D.C., Dahl met with author C.S. Forrester, who encouraged him to start writing. Dahl published his first short story in the Saturday Evening Post. He went on to write stories and articles for other magazines, including The New Yorker. Of his early writing career, Dahl told New York Times book reviewer Willa Petschek, "As I went on the stories became less and less realistic and more fantastic." He went on to describe his foray into writing as a "pure fluke," saying, "Without being asked to, I doubt if I'd ever have thought to do it."

Dahl wrote his first story for children, The Gremlins, in 1942, for Walt Disney. The story wasn't terribly successful, so Dahl went back to writing macabre and mysterious stories geared toward adult readers. He continued in this vein into the 1950s, producing the best-selling story collection Someone Like You in 1953, and Kiss, Kiss in 1959.

Personal Life

The same year that Someone Like You was published, Dahl married film actress Patricia Neal, who won an Academy Award for her role in Hud in 1961. The marriage lasted three decades and resulted in five children, one of whom tragically died in 1962.

Dahl told his children nightly bedtime stories that inspired his future career as a children's writer. These stories became the basis for some of his most popular kids' books, as his children proved an informative test audience. "Children are ... highly critical. And they lose interest so quickly," he asserted in his New York Times book review interview. " You have to keep things ticking along. And if you think a child is getting bored, you must think up something that jolts it back. Something that tickles. You have to know what children like."

After Neal suffered from multiple brain hemorrhages in the mid-1960s, Dahl stood by her through her long recovery. The couple would eventually divorce in 1983. Soon after, Dahl married Felicity Ann Crosland, his partner until his death in 1990.

Author Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl photographed in 1976. (Photo: Tony Evans/Getty Images)

Children's Books

Dahl first established himself as a children’s writer in 1961, when he published the book James and the Giant Peach. The book met with wide critical and commercial acclaim. Three years later, Dahl published another big winner, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Both books were eventually made into popular movies. A film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was released as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in 1971, and an originally titled remake of the film, starring Johnny Depp, was released in 2005. The movie version of James and the Giant Peach was released in 1996.

In addition to James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl's most popular kids' books include Fantastic Fox (1970), The Witches (1983) and Matilda (1988).

Despite their popularity, Dahl’s children’s books have been the subject of some controversy, as critics and parents have balked at their portrayal of children’s harsh revenge on adult wrongdoers. In his defense, Dahl claimed that children have a cruder sense of humor than adults, and that he was merely trying to appeal to his readers. Other critics have accused Dahl of portraying a racist stereotype with his Oompa-Loompa characters in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Death

After suffering an unspecified infection, on November 12, 1990, Roald Dahl was admitted to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, England. He died there on November 23, 1990, at the age of 74. Over his decades-long writing career, Dahl composed 19 children’s books and nine short story collections. He also wrote several television and movie scripts.

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