A world without Roald Dahl would be a world without Oompa Loompas, Snozzcumbers, or Muggle-Wumps. And who would ever want to live in a world like that? Celebrate the author with these gloriumptious facts about the master of edgy kids' books.
1. Writing was never Roald Dahl's best subject.
Dahl held onto a school report he had written as a kid, on which his teacher noted: “I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended.”
2. Making up nonsensical words was part of what Roald Dahl did best.
3. Roald Dahl's first profession was as a pilot.
And not just any pilot: Dahl was a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force during World War II. And it was a plane crash near Alexandria, Egypt that actually inspired him to begin writing.
4. Roald Dahl got into some 007 kind of stuff, too.
Alongside fellow officers Ian Fleming and David Ogilvy, Dahl supplied intelligence to an MI6 organization known as the British Security Coordination.
5. Roald Dahl's first published piece was accidental.
Upon recovering from that plane crash, Dahl was reassigned to Washington, D.C., where he worked as an assistant air attaché. He was approached by author C.S. Forester, who was writing a piece for The Saturday Evening Post and looking to interview someone who had been on the frontlines of the war. Dahl offered to write some notes on his experiences, but when Forester received them he didn’t want to change a word. He submitted Dahl’s notes—originally titled “A Piece of Cake”—to his editor and on August 1, 1942, Roald Dahl officially became a published author. He was paid $1000 for the story, which had been retitled “Shot Down Over Libya” for dramatic effect.
6. Roald Dahl's first children's book was inspired by the Royal Air Force.
Published in 1942, The Gremlins was about a group of mischievous creatures who tinkered with the RAF’s planes. Though the movie rights were purchased by Walt Disney, a film version never materialized. Dahl would go on to become one of the world’s bestselling fiction authors, with more than 100 million copies of his books published in nearly 50 languages.
7. Roald Dahl read Playboy for the articles.
Or at least his own articles. While he’s best known as a children’s author, Dahl was just as prolific in the adult short story sphere. His stories were published in a range of outlets, including Collier’s, Ladies Home Journal, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Playboy, where his topics of choice included wife-swapping, promiscuity, suicide, and adultery. Several of these stories were published as part of Dahl’s Switch Bitch anthology.
8. Quentin Tarantino adapted a Roald Dahl short story for the big screen.
One of Dahl’s best-known adult short stories, “Man from the South” (a.k.a. “The Smoker”), was adapted for TV and film three times, twice as part of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (once in 1960 with Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre, and again in 1985) and a third time as the final segment in 1995’s film anthology Four Rooms, which Quentin Tarantino directed.
9. Roald Dahl's own attempts at screenwriting were not as successful.
One would think that, with his intriguing background and talent for words, Dahl’s transition from novelist to screenwriter would be an easy one ... but you would be wrong. Dahl was hired to adapt two of Ian Fleming’s novels, the James Bond novel You Only Live Once and the kid-friendly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; both scripts were completely rewritten. Dahl was also hired to adapt Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the big screen, but was replaced by David Seltzer when he couldn’t make his deadlines. Dahl was not shy about his criticisms of the finished product, noting his “disappointment” that the film (and its changed title) shifted the story’s emphasis from Charlie to Willy Wonka.
10. Roald Dahl made an important contribution to the field of neurosurgery.
In 1960, Dahl’s four-month-old son Theo’s carriage was struck by a cab driver in New York City, leaving the child suffering from hydrocephalus, a condition that increases fluid in the brain. Dahl became very actively involved in his son’s recovery, and contacted toymaker Stanley Wade for help. Together with Theo’s neurosurgeon, Kenneth Till, the trio developed a shunt that helped to alleviate the condition. It became known as the Wade-Dahl-Till valve.
11. Roald Dahl had made a very public pro-vaccination please.
Theo's ordeal was not the only tragedy Dahl dealt with. In 1962, his 7-year-old daughter died after a case of the measles led to encephalitis, or brain swelling. The death devastated Dahl, especially as there was no measles vaccine at the time that could have prevented her death. When that changed in the 1980s, and a vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) was rolled out in the UK, Dahl implored the public to inoculate their children.
“I should think there would be more chance of your child choking to death on a chocolate bar than of becoming seriously ill from a measles immunization,” Dahl wrote. “So what on earth are you worrying about? It really is almost a crime to allow your child to go unimmunized.”
12. Even in death, Roald Dahl's sense of humor was evident.
Dahl passed away from a blood disease on November 23, 1990 at the age of 74. Per his request, he was buried with all of his favorite things: snooker cues, a bottle of Burgundy, chocolate, HB pencils, and a power saw.
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2021.