Monday, May 9, 2011

James and the Giant Peach (Book)

Author: Roald Dahl. Release date: 1961. Publisher:  Alfred Knopf. ISBN: 9780375814248.
Plot summary: After his parents are tragically killed by an escaped rhinoceros, James Henry Trotter is sent from his serene cottage by the sea to live with his cruel aunts, Sponge and Spiker. The women treat James horribly, beating him for no reason, giving him leftover scraps to eat, and forcing him to sleep in the attic on the bare floor. One day while taking a break from the abuse outside in the garden, James meets a mysterious man who offers him a bag of crocodile tongues which he promises will bring him happiness. James is heartbroken when he trips and spills the contents of the bag at the base of a barren peach tree in front of the home. Not long after, however, a very large peach begins to grow on the tree, growing bigger and bigger with each passing day. James’ aunts invite crowds to view the peach, for a fee of course. One day while cleaning up after the crowds have left, James discovers a tunnel leading through the fruit and into the hollow pit at the center. In the pit, James discovers a group of insects who were also transformed by the magical tongues and can speak like human beings. The insects are kind to James, and the group decides to escape the awful hillside. After the insects chew through the stem, the peach is released from the tree and rolls into a series of adventures beyond James’ wildest imagination.
Review:  This Roald Dahl classic contains the same slightly dark tone as many of his other titles, but is still one of the author’s most light-hearted and fun novels. James experiences living with his aunts are so awful it’s almost cartoonish. They beat him, call him terrible names, and give him only disgusting things like fish heads to eat. Almost from the start, the reader will wish horrible things upon these women. That James is able to find a more loving environment in the company of insects living within an enormous peach is no surprise. The various adventures James and his friends experience will delight readers, especially when the peach gets skewered on top of the Empire State Building. The conclusion of the novel is very satisfying as well, and will likely inspire tweens to pick up another Roald Dahl title, if they haven’t read them all already. James and the Giant Peach would make a great classroom read-aloud as well as an individual option for both tween boys and girls. The film version of the novel, released in 1996, is an excellent adaptation and would make a great companion to reading the book.
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy
Reading level: Grades 4-7
Similar titles: Other Roald Dahl novels, Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket.
Personal thoughts: I am a huge Roald Dahl fan, and remember tearing through this book as a tween. As an adult, I enjoyed it just as much. There is something so clever in Dahl’s writing style that makes any plot twist, no matter how crazy or odd, seem marvelous. I also liked that the abuse received by James at the hands of his aunts is so over the top as to be cartoonish. It would be unfortunate to try seriously delve into the topic of child abuse in a novel about a giant, magical peach, and Dahl steers clear from making this an issue.
Themes:  Orphans, magic, talking animals.
Awards/Reviews:  Considered a classic piece of children’s literature.
Series Information: N/A
Character information:
James Henry Trotter – Kind young boy who is forced to live with his abusive aunts after his parents are killed. He tries to be happy even if his aunts are cruel, and ends up finding a new family of talking insects living in the pit of a giant and magical peach.
Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge – James’ horrible and repulsive spinster aunts. They are perpetually cruel to James and abuse him frequently. When the giant peach begins to grow in their yard they use it as a money making scheme.
Centipede – One of James’ insect friends living in the peach. He and James become close on their adventures.
Earthworm – Another of James’ insect friends. He is constantly arguing with the Centipede and is somewhat pessimistic, but also kind.
Grasshopper – Another insect living in the peach. He is the most sophisticated of the insects and acts as a father to James.
Ladybug – Another insect living in the peach who takes on a motherly role to James.
Spider – Another insect living in the peach who has a particular hatred of James’ aunts for killing her relatives. She often uses her webs on the various adventures in the peach.
Glowworm – The final insect living in the peach with James. She is kind but very lethargic. She provides light for the insects in the peach pit.

Annotation:   After his parents are killed and he is sent to live with his repulsive and cruel aunts, James is sure that he will never be happy again. Things change, however, when an impossible large peach begins to grow on the formerly barren tree in front of his aunts’ house.

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