To pin down the first novel I remember reading has proven a more difficult task than I had first anticipated. I started reading at a very young age, and much of that part of my life is particularly hazy, my memories overwhelmed by the craziness of my early childhood life. However, I do know that the bulk of the novels I was reading in my early school years were by Roald Dahl, and I know that these books had a profound influence on me that would last the rest of my life, not only causing me to fall in love with books, but also exposing my imagination to characters, places and stories that were out of this world.
Although I have distinct memories of reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory many times over, I am quite certain that the book that really caught my imagination, the first one I can really remember reading, was James and the Giant Peach (my middle name is James, and I suspect this had something to do with why this book appealed to me – such are the mind’s workings of a child at that age). The story centres around a young orphan boy, James, who enters a giant magical peach, meets a group of giant, human-like insects, and ends up going on an adventure around the world, the peach travelling my ground, by ocean, and even by air. It is full of unusual bad guys and conflicts, from the horrid Aunts that James has to live with, to the sharks in the ocean, to the mysterious Cloud-Men who live up in the sky and control the weather from the clouds.
For me as a young child, I was utterly enthralled with this story. There are moments that are quite dark and possibly scary (so much so that this book has been challenged for censorship a number of times), especially for children, but for me it was so surreal, so completely out of this world, that I was too entranced to be scared – I was simply in awe. I don’t know how many times I read this book as a child, but I suspect it was dozens of times, at the very least. I was often told by teachers at a young age that my imagination was wild, and indeed even as an adult I have been told the same thing, and I think, looking back, I owe it all, ultimately, to this book, and more broadly to Roald Dahl. I would even go so far as to say that he is the reason I want to be a novelist, all these years later.
If you have never read James and the Giant Peach, even if you’re an adult now, I suggest you read it. If you have never read any Roald Dahl at all, I suggest you read some of his books (he also wrote short stories for adults, and a couple of novels and other works). If you have children who have never been exposed to Dahl, I strongly suggest you go out and buy them a copy of this book. You won’t regret it, and one day they’ll thank you for it, I can assure you.
What was the first novel you remember reading? Were your experiences similar to mine at all?