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James and the Giant Peach
by Roald Dahl
Before there was a claymation movie under this title, there was this book. And a fine book it is, though perhaps darker than some of Dahl’s children’s stories.
As the story begins, James is in a fix that should feel familiar for anyone who has sympathized with Harry Potter’s plight. James is a happy little boy until his parents are killed in a truly outrageous accident (you have to read it to believe it). James is sent to live with his evil aunts, bony Aunt Spiker and tubby Aunt Sponge. This pair makes the Dursleys look like a good-natured family that only practices a little “tough love.” They are truly hideous. And for three years, they grind James down with beatings, forced labor, constant criticism, deprivation, loneliness, and despair, until he is a very sad little boy.
Then, lo and behold, a strange little man gives James a paper bag full of magic crystals which, the man says, James must stir into water and drink if he wants to have wonderful things happen to him. In his excitement, James trips and spills the crystals on the roots of a withered old peach tree. Overnight a peach the size of a house grows, and before you can say Peach Cobbler, the peach has broken loose, crushed the horrid Aunts to death, and carried James away on a magical journey.
Through sea and sky, James is swept by a combination of cleverness, courage, and fairy-tale gags. And on the good ship (or airship) Peach, he makes the acquaintance of a group of giant-sized, talking, clothes-wearing bugs-the Old-Green-Grasshopper, Miss Spider, Miss Ladybug, Miss Silkworm, the Earthworm, the Glowworm, and the ne’er-do-well Centipede, who is constantly worrying about his forty-two pairs of boots. Together they see how the weather is made, they escape from sharks, and they scare the daylights out of the good people of New York City.
Fans of the Dahl stories will be delighted by cameo appearances by the snozzwanger, the whangdoodle, and (my favorite) the vermicious Knid. And fans of a certain boy wizard will be slightly startled to learn the full name of our hero: James Henry Trotter.