Roald Dahl is without question the most successful children's writer in the world
– Brian Appleyard, The Independent (1990)
Total sales of the UK editions of Roald Dahl's children's books are around 37 million, and his work has been translated into 34 languages. As Susan Hill said, "If you want to talk about children's books you have to start with Dahl and finish with him."
Roald Dahl was born in Llandaff, South Wales in 1916 to Norwegian parents, Sofie and Harald. The first of many tragedies to beset his life was the death of his father and sister when he was four. He was sent to boarding school, first to Saint Peters and then to Repton. He loathed both schools and maintained that he suffered particularly cruel treatment, inspiring many of the villains in his future children's stories. He showed little academic promise, and his English teacher failed to spot any potential in his writing, remarking that the boy was, "Quite incapable of marshalling his thoughts on paper."
After school, Dahl took a job with Shell Petroleum in Tanganyika (Tanzania). He was still there five years later at the outbreak of World War II, and was required as an officer in the King's African Rifles to round up the many Germans living there. He joined the Royal Air Force, and was wounded and temporarily blinded in a crash landing in North Africa. He recovered and went on to fly many combat missions in Greece and the Middle East, before being invalided home. He began writing in 1942, with stories about his flying experiences. At the same time, he was writing propaganda in Washington, and working as a spy for MI6.
Dahl married the American actress Patricia Neal in 1953, and they went on to have five children: Olivia, Tessa, Theo, Ophelia and Lucy. Initially the marriage was a happy one, but tragedy repeatedly struck the family: Olivia died of measles at seven; Theo was struck in his pram by a taxi and suffered neurological problems as a result; and Patricia suffered a series of debilitating strokes.
Dahl moved to Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire in 1960, where he acquired a Gypsy Caravan for his children to play in; it would later feature in Danny, the Champion of the World. It was around this time that he started to write children's fiction in earnest, starting with James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (he had published one previous children's book in 1943: The Gremlins).
He could be an extremely demanding man to deal with, and changed publishers on several occasions when he thought he was not receiving the attention he deserved. One publisher finally sent a letter to Dahl saying, "You have behaved to us in a way I can honestly say is unmatched in my experience for overbearingness and utter lack of civility[...] you've managed to make the entire experience of publishing you unappealing for all of us[...] unless you start acting civilly to us, there is no possibility of our agreeing to continue to publish you" (Jeremy Treglown; Roald Dahl: A biography). His grand-daughter Sophie described Dahl as, "A very difficult man — very strong, very dominant."
Despite the controversial nature of his character, he remains one of the most – if not the most – popular of children's authors. He once said, "I have a passion for teaching kids to become readers," and judging by the number of children who continue to enjoy his books this is something he certainly managed to achieve.
Fun facts about Roald Dahl:
1. He often played with words and invented new ones. He called it Gobblefunk.
2. He was specific about the type of paper he used. All of his books were written on American yellow legal pads.
3. He could speak three languages: English, Swahili and Norwegian.
4. He was very tall, at 1.96 metres (6ft 5).
5. His favourite musician was Beethoven.
The official Roald Dahl website
Roald Dahl fanclub website