Books

100 phizz-whizzing facts about Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl's novel Matilda turns 30 years old on Oct. 1, 2018. To celebrate, here are are 100 positively phizz-whizzing facts about his life and work.
Matilda by Roald Dahl was first published on Oct. 1, 1988. (Carl Van Vechten/Puffin)

Roald Dahl's novel Matilda turns 30 years old on Oct. 1, 2018. The British children's author led a life that was just as fantastic and unbelievable as his works of fiction, which still delight children around the world decades later.

Here are 100 positively phizz-whizzing facts about his life and work.

1. Roald Dahl was born in Llandaff, Wales, on September 13, 1916. Llandaff was incorporated into the Welsh capital of Cardiff in 1922.

Roald Amundsen in 1925. (Preus Museum/Wikimedia Commons)

3. When Dahl's mother Sofie was pregnant, his father Harald would insist on taking "glorious walks" every day for an hour with her. These walks were taken in scenic countryside locales, in hopes that the unborn baby would develop a love for beautiful things.¹

4. Tragedy struck Dahl's family in 1920. In February of that year, his older sister Astri died at the age of seven from an infection. His father, stricken by grief, died weeks later of pneumonia at the age of 57.

5. This left Dahl's mother, Sofie, with five children under her sole care (including two stepchildren from Harald's previous marriage), and a sixth on the way. Dahl was three years old.

(Roald Dahl Literary Estate)

7. Dahl's Norwegian heritage plays a starring role in his 1983 novel The Witches, which is set partly in Norway and partly in the U.K., focusing on a young boy and his Norwegian grandmother.

8. From 1923 to 1925, Dahl attended an all-boys prep school in Llandaff. There, he and his friends staged what he went on to call "the great and daring Mouse plot."

9. Here's how it went down: a mean old woman named Mrs. Pratchett ran the local candy shop, horrifying children when she stuck her filthy hands into the candy jars. While his friends distracted her, Dahl put a dead mouse in her jar of Gobstoppers. He said of this prank: "We all have our moments of brilliance and glory, and this was mine."¹

(Roald Dahl Literary Estate)

11. Dahl then went to another English boarding school called Repton. The Cadbury company used the boys at the school as tasters for their chocolate bars, providing inspiration for Dahl's most famous book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

12. Young Dahl and his friends took their chocolate-tasting duties very seriously. Dahl recalls commenting about one bar, "Too subtle for the common palate."¹

13. In 1934, upon graduating from Repton, Dahl went on a school expedition to Newfoundland for three weeks.

14. In Newfoundland, Dahl and around 30 others trudged through harsh, desolate landscape, eating pemmican and lentils.¹ Dahl put tar on his head to try to keep the mosquitoes at bay.²

15. He then started working for the Shell oil company. In 1938, he was sent to their East African branch office, in what is now Tanzania.

16. This plan had been simmering for some time. When Dahl was a student at Repton, his mother offered to pay for his tuition at Oxford or Cambridge. Dahl replied, "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."

(Roald Dahl Literary Estate)

18. In September 1940, Dahl's plane crashed in the North African desert, and he sustained severe injuries to his head, nose and back. He spent six months recovering in an Egyptian hospital.

19. After further recuperating in England, now with debilitating headaches that prevented him from continuing as a pilot, Dahl was sent to Washington, D.C. as an assistant air attaché. There, he met the British novelist C.S. Forester (the author of the Horatio Hornblower series.)

20. Forester urged Dahl to write about his wartime experiences, which resulted in his first piece of paid writing, about being shot down in Libya, published in the Saturday Evening Post.

The very first illustration of Willy Wonka (shown above) was drawn by Joseph Schindelman. (Roald Dahl Literary Estate)

22. Think Gremlins were invented for the 1984 film? Think again. Roald Dahl's first published book, The Gremlins, was based on a belief in the RAF that the little creatures were responsible for glitches on the airplanes.

23. Roald Dahl's The Gremlins was published in 1943. Eleanor Roosevelt read the book to her grandchildren and Dahl was later invited to the White House. The story also led to a meeting with Walt Disney.

24. Dahl's first short story collection, Over to You, was published in 1946. Written for grown-ups, not kids, all the stories in the collection have flying themes.

25. In 1948, Dahl published his first novel, Some Time Never: A Fable for Supermen. A dark novel that's speculated to be the first fictional treatment of nuclear war ever published, it was definitely not aimed at children.

Neal and Dahl at the Screen Directors Awards, circa 1962. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

27. In 1954, Dahl's short story collection Someone Like You was awarded the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award.

28. Roald Dahl wrote one stage play. Called The Honeys, it only ran for 36 performances on the U.S. East Coast before shutting down.

29. Dahl's first daughter, born in 1955, was named Olivia Twenty Dahl, after Patricia Neal's favourite heroine from Shakespeare and two links to the number 20: the first that she was born on April 20, and the second that Dahl had $20 in his pocket when he came to the hospital to see his wife and new baby.

The Enormous Crocodile, published in 1978, was the first book that Blake illustrated for Dahl. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images, ©Quentin Blake)

31. Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter," a story for grown-ups, is based on a dinner in Vermont Dahl had with his friend, Ian Fleming (creator of the James Bond series). Their leg of lamb was so tough that Fleming said the cook should be shot. Dahl thought up a more creative punishment, which is the basis of the story. Watch the 1979 TV adaptation.

32. A number of Dahl's stories were adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Man From the South," with Peter Lorre and Steve McQueen. It remains one of the most popular episodes of the series.

33. When Dahl's father was 14, he fell off a roof and broke his left arm. The doctor was drunk when he arrived and attempted to pull the arm in place with the help of two men on the street. They did so much damage they were forced to amputate the arm at the elbow.¹

(Roald Dahl Literary Estate)

35. After his mother's death, Dahl found out that she had kept every single one of his letters. There were over 600, kept with their original envelopes and stamps.¹

36. Dahl's paternal grandfather, whom he describes as "an amiable giant," was nearly seven feet tall. Dahl himself grew to be six feet, six inches.¹

37. Dahl's eldest daughter Olivia died from measles at the age of seven in 1962. There was no reliable immunization at the time. In 1986, Dahl wrote a plea to parents to vaccinate their children.

38. Dahl transported himself to kindergarten every day on his tricycle, riding alongside his older sister at tremendous tricycle speeds.¹

39. Every summer from age four to 17, Dahl went to Norway with his family to visit his grandparents. They explored islands, went swimming and fished together. Dahl loved these holidays.¹

40. Dahl hosted two TV series: Way Out, in 1961; and Tales of the Unexpected, based on his story collection of the same name, which aired in 1979.

41. On his first night at boarding school, nine-year-old Dahl was very homesick. He looked out the window to figure out which direction home was in and fell asleep facing that way. From then on, in every dormitory room he moved into, he always went to bed facing the direction his family was in.¹

42. The Dahl family went on their first-ever car ride in 1925. It was a disastrously eventful affair as the driver, Dahl's older half sister, crashed the car into a hedge in the middle of nowhere, sending everyone flying out of the car. Miraculously, Dahl was the only person seriously hurt - his nose was cut almost completely off his face and had to be sewed back on.¹

43. Dahl was greatly affected by the beatings he and others experienced at school, saying "I never have got over it... Even today, whenever I have to sit for any length of time on a hard bench or chair, I begin to feel my heart beating along the old lines that the cane made on my bottom some 55 years ago."¹

Quentin Blake, Dahl's longtime collaborator, drew this illustration for the publication of the new chapter. (©Quentin Blake)

45. Dahl was an exceptional athlete growing up. His best sports were squash and a game called fives, which is similar to handball. He became Captain of Fives at school.¹

46. Dahl's love of photography garnered him awards from the Royal Photographic Society in London, the Photographic Society of Holland and the Egyptian Photographic Society in Cairo.¹

47. In the early 1940s, while Dahl was stationed in the U.S., he sparred in the boxing ring with Ernest Hemingway. The American author also gave Dahl writing advice, telling him "when it starts going well, quit," meaning that you should end each writing day on a high note.²

Dahl in his writing hut. (Roald Dahl Literary Estate)

49. All of his stories were written in pencil on yellow legal pad. His secretary would later type out his work.

50. At 21, Dahl had all of his teeth pulled out and replaced with false teeth, believing that real teeth were more trouble than they were worth. He convinced his mother to do the same.²

51. Dahl followed a pretty strict writing schedule. He started every day at 9:30 am by reading fan mail. From 10:30 until noon he wrote stories. After eating lunch and some reading, Dahl edited his work for couple more hours.

(©Quentin Blake)

53. Dahl was a huge fan of the French Impressionists, and in the 1940s, would buy a painting whenever he sold a story. Then sometimes he'd have to sell the painting to support himself until he sold the next story.²

54. Dahl described his longtime American publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, as "a terrible wrathful man, with a slow fuse burning in one end of his belly and a stick of dynamite in the other."

55. Think Charlie and The Chocolate Factory was Dahl's first novel for children? Think again. James and the Giant Peach was published three years before Charlie, in 1961. Dahl was 45 years old.

(©Quentin Blake)

57. Dahl had an affair with Elizabeth Arden, the cosmetics maven. He commented to friends that the relationship "didn't last long, but it cured my spots."

58. When Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was first published in 1965 in the U.S., it came up against criticism that it was racist, mainly due to its description of the Oompa-Loompas, "African pygmies from the very deepest and darkest part of the jungle."

59. Dahl's writing for adults and for children would sometimes overlap. For example, the central plot of his children's book Danny the Champion of the World, about a boy's mechanic father who poaches pheasants by night in a nearby wood, was first seen in his story "The Champion of the World," in his grown-up collection Someone Like You.

60. Dahl was a lifelong dog lover. His best-loved dog was a Jack Russell named Chopper, who Dahl spoiled, feeding him oysters, caviar and candy. Despite his rich diet, Chopper lived to the ripe old dog age of 16.²

61. Dahl co-wrote the classic British children's film Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang, based on the novel of the same name by his friend, James Bond creator Ian Fleming.

62. The film's infamous Child Catcher, who is often described as one of the scariest movie villains of all time, was a creation of Dahl's. He didn't appear in the Fleming novel.

63. Roald Dahl died on November 23, 1990, at the age of 74, from a rare blood disorder called myelodysplastic anaemia. In a newsletter to his young readers shortly before his death, he described feeling "a bit off colour these last few months, feeling sleepy when I shouldn't have been and without that lovely old bubbly energy that drives one to write books and drink gin and chase after girls."

64. Dahl's own favourite of all his children's books? The BFG.

65. He dedicated this book to his late daughter, Olivia, on the 20th anniversary of her death.

66. While filmmaker Wes Anderson was writing the screenplay for his acclaimed stop-motion film Fantastic Mr. Fox, he stayed with Dahl's second wife Felicity in the Buckinghamshire countryside that inspired the book.

67. In the book, Mr. and Mrs. Fox don't have first names, but in the film, Anderson gave Mrs. Fox the first name Felicity.

68. In 1960, Dahl's son Theo was left brain-damaged after his pram was hit by a taxi in New York.

69. After his accident, little Theo developed hydrocephalus, or "water on the brain." Dahl - who had said that he would have liked to have been a doctor if not a writer - went on to help create the Wade-Dahl-Till (WDT) valve, which went on to be used in thousands of operations to drain excess fluid from the brain.

70. There is a splendiferous Roald Dahl children's museum in the Buckinghamshire village where Dahl lived and wrote for over 35 years.

He also kept a piece of his own hip bone in the writing hut, which had been removed in a surgery. (Roald Dahl Literary Estate)

72. Dahl wrote the screenplay for a film called The Night Digger, released in 1971. It was based on a 1967 novel by Joy Cowley, and Dahl wrote it as a starring vehicle for his first wife, actress Patricia Neal. Pat had suffered a stroke when pregnant with their daughter Lucy, and Dahl wrote this into the script, making the main character a recovering stroke victim.

73. The 1972 sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, was almost called "Charlie and the Great Glass Air Machine." Dahl thought "elevator" was too American a term, and considered the British term for elevator, "lift," too boring.

74. In 1979, Dahl published the very grown-up novel My Uncle Oswald, whose first iteration was a story commissioned by Playboy magazine. Dahl later described it as his "longest and dirtiest story" ever.

Dahl with his daughter Lucy. (©RDNL, ©Quentin Blake)

76. His first winter at Repton boarding school, Dahl became the favourite toilet-seat warmer of a Boazer (Repton's version of prefects) named Wilberforce. Dahl would go out to the doorless, unheated, outdoor lavatory and sit on the Boazers' toilet with his pants down for about 15 minutes before Wilberforce came to use it. Dahl said he probably read Dickens' entire works warming up Wilberforce's toilet seat.¹

77. Like the BFG, Dahl would climb up a ladder outside his daughters' bedrooms and blow dreams in through their window (though in Dahl's case, we suspect it was only make-believe).

78. Dahl's book The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me is only 30-odd pages long — but it's the result of 300 pages of discards and rewrites.

79. Part of the reason Dahl found writing The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me so difficult was the amount of pain he was in by this time (the 1980s) from his long-ago WWII plane crash. By then, he had two steel hips and had undergone at least six laminectomies on his spine (in which part of the vertebrae is removed).

(©Quentin Blake)

81. The heroine of The BFG, Sophie, is named after Dahl's first grandchild.

82. The last Roald Dahl book to be published in his lifetime was Esio Trot, a sweet romance between a lonely man named Mr. Hoppy and his neighbour, Mrs. Silver, who is obsessed with her tortoise, Alfie. Just try to read it and not tear up.

83. Dahl got the idea for Esio Trot 12 years prior to publishing the story, when he went to visit his daughter's apartment and spotted a tortoise on the downstairs balcony.

84. Esio Trot was made into a TV film for BBC, starring Dustin Hoffman and Dame Judi Dench.

85. The 1971 film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory left a bitter taste in Dahl's mouth. According to his friend and biographer Donald Sturrock, Dahl found the casting of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka too bland. His first choice was the surreal English comedian Spike Milligan, and his second choice was Peter Sellers.

86. Dahl also hated the 1990 film version of The Witches, which starred Anjelica Huston and drastically changed the book's ending.

87. Two of Roald Dahl's best-loved protagonists didn't have names: the girl in The Magic Finger and the boy in The Witches.

89. The Roald Dahl Literary Estate is now overseen by Dahl's 30-year-old grandson, Luke Kelly.

90. According to the New York Times, there are currently 23 TV, film and stage adaptations of Dahl's books in the works.

91. On the weekend of September 17-18, 2016, the city of Cardiff, Wales (Dahl's birthplace) is planning to transform into a "city of the unexpected," with thousands of performers taking part in Dahl-themed spectacles, as well as special readings and a pyjama picnic.

92. If you've always found the revolting culinary descriptions in The Twits compelling, make a reservation for the immersive Twits dinner in London's Vaults, a windowless space under Waterloo station, complete with rainbow sausages, squiggly spaghetti and "surprise pies," which appear to have whole fish and crabs baked inside.

93. To date, Dahl's books have sold over 250 million copies.

94. The Dahl estate has some interesting reading material for you in the bathrooms: negative reviews of the author's work.

95. Dahl and illustrator Quentin Blake worked closely together on what the BFG looked like. Blake was stuck on footwear until he received a package in the mail — it had one of Dahl's old sandals in it.

96. When Dahl died in 1990, he had just started a new story about a girl who had taught her dog to speak.²

(David Austin)

98. Oxford University Press is releasing a special dictionary for Roald Dahl fans, celebrating the author's penchant for inventing delightful words like "lickswishy" and "whizzpopping." It contains nearly 8,000 entries.

99. Upon Dahl's death, his family buried him near his home with pencils, wine... and chocolates.²

100. At the end of Dahl's 1985 book The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, the monkey sings Billy a good-bye song. This part of the song is carved into stone slabs around a bench near Dahl's grave:

(©Quentin Blake)

¹From Boy:Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl ©1984. Published by Puffin Books.

²From Who Was Roald Dahl? By True Kelley, illustrated by Stephen Marchesi ©2012. Published by Penguin Books.

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