14 Larger-Than-Life Facts About James and the Giant Peach

A giant peach is displayed in Cardiff, Wales in 2016 to celebrate the life of author Roald Dahl.
A giant peach is displayed in Cardiff, Wales in 2016 to celebrate the life of author Roald Dahl.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach has all the hallmarks of a classic children’s fantasy: a young boy embarking on a great adventure, overcoming evil forces, and enlisting the help of talking creatures. But the beloved novel also breaks from tradition in others ways, from its wild plot turns to its sometimes-violent imagery (R.I.P., Aunts Sponge and Spiker). All of those factors come together in a tale that Dahl struggled to get both written and published, as he overcame his own doubts and stuffy British publishers, among other obstacles. Here are a few other things you might not know about James and the Giant Peach.

1. DAHL’S OWN ORCHARD INSPIRED HIM.

Dahl’s house in the English countryside had an apple orchard, where he would often go for strolls. One day, he wondered what it was that made apples grow only so big. “What would happen if it didn’t stop growing?" the author said in a 1988 interview. "Why should it stop growing at a certain size?” Writing about a giant apple didn’t seem quite right, and neither did a giant cherry or a giant pear. Eventually, Dahl settled on a giant peach. “He thought its flesh and flavors were more exciting and more sensual,” Donald Sturrock wrote in Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl.

2. HE REALLY WANTED TO WRITE ABOUT INSECTS.

After deciding to write a children’s novel, Dahl pondered the sorts of creatures that should live in his story. His children loved animals, but he felt Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne, and so many others had already covered all the interesting non-human characters. So he set his sights on insects. “There seemed to be jolly little that had not been written about, except maybe little things like earthworms and centipedes and spiders,” Dahl reportedly told his daughter Ophelia. It was those very creatures he would incorporate into James and the Giant Peach, in the forms of Earthworm, Centipede, and Miss Spider.

3. HE STOPPED WRITING AFTER A FIGHT WITH HIS PUBLISHER.

While writing the book, Dahl learned that his American publisher, Alfred Knopf, had quietly axed publication of his earlier collection of stories, Kiss Kiss. So he stopped working on James and the Giant Peach, which Knopf had expressed enthusiasm for. Instead, he turned his attention to a screenwriting project. “As far as getting a children’s book out of me now, he can stuff that one up his arse,” the often contentious Dahl wrote in a letter to his New York agent, Sheila St. Lawrence.

4. THE CATHOLIC CHURCH PLAYED AN UNEXPECTED ROLE IN ONE OF HIS OTHER WORKS—AND HELPED HIM FOCUS ON THE NOVEL.

That screenwriting project involved adapting two dozen classic horror tales, selected by him, for television. The author wrote the screenplay for the first selection, a story called “The Hanging of Arthur Wadham.” It was shot and edited, and seemed on its way to a full release. But then, according to Sturrock, the studio suddenly grew nervous. One of the script's key plot points involved a priest deliberating over whether or not to reveal something said during confessional, and break his sacred vows. Fearing they might offend the Catholic Church and religious viewers, the studio nixed the episode and eventually canceled the series. Frustrated, Dahl returned to writing James and the Giant Peach.

5. WHILE CRAFTING THE STORY, DAHL ALIENATED HIS TRUSTED AGENT AND FRIEND.

For more than a decade, Dahl relied on the support and guidance of New York-based agent Sheila St. Lawrence. She encouraged him to write James and The Giant Peach and even contributed ideas that made it into the book, like the scene where cloud men pelt the flying peach with hailstones. After Dahl signed a new agent to represent him in England, Laurence Pollinger, things turned sour with St. Lawrence.

Pollinger convinced Dahl to let him handle the translation rights for Kiss Kiss (which Penguin had agreed to publish) and James and the Giant Peach, a job St. Lawrence had overseen up to that point. Dahl broke the news to St. Lawrence, who fired back that he should stay out of it and let her hash out the matter with Pollinger. After arguing with Dahl and with Pollinger, St. Lawrence eventually gave up the fight. She and Dahl made up, but she was clearly wounded by what she saw as Dahl’s shifting allegiance. Less than a year later, she left her job and moved to Ireland.

6. HE WORKED THROUGH TRAGEDY.

On December 5, 1960, Dahl’s infant son, Theo, was badly injured after a New York taxi collided with his stroller. To control the buildup of fluid in Theo’s head, which took the brunt of the impact, doctors installed a shunt. The tube frequently became blocked, requiring one desperate visit to the emergency room after another for Dahl and his wife, the actress Patricia Neal. Rather than retiring in grief, Dahl became something of a medical expert and, with the help of doctors and a toymaker, developed an improved shunt called the Dahl-Wade-Till valve. The device went on to be installed in more than 3000 children—but Theo wasn't one of them. By that point, Dahl's son had recovered sufficiently. Dahl also found time to work on James, finishing the book in early 1961.

7. HE SELECTED AN UNKNOWN ARTIST TO ILLUSTRATE THE BOOK.

According to Sturrock, Dahl turned down several famous names, including the Danish painter Lars Bo, in favor of American Nancy Eckholm Burkert. It was her first book illustration job. And while her surreal yet wondrous pictures venerated Dahl’s choice, it appears he may have also selected her, in part, because she could be influenced. Dahl had a clear idea of how the illustrations should look, and often gave his unsolicited input. He demanded, for instance, that James look like Christopher Robin from Ernest Howard Shepherd’s illustrations in Winnie the Pooh. “A face with character is not so important as a face with charm,” he wrote to his editor at Knopf. “One must fall in love with him.”

8. U.S. SALES FOR JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH WERE REALLY SLOW AT FIRST.

Despite glowing reviews in The New York Times and other publications, James and the Giant Peach only sold 2600 copies in the U.S. in its first year. Dahl’s editor at Knopf assured the author that this was often how sales trended for little-known authors, and that the book would eventually pick up steam. One thing that probably worked against Dahl was a negative review in the highly influential Library Journal, in which writer Ethel Heins, despite noting “original elements,” rejected the book’s violent elements and characterization of Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. Her verdict: “Not Recommended.”

9. IT TOOK SEVEN YEARS TO FIND A BRITISH PUBLISHER.

Hard to believe now, but Dahl had a very difficult time finding a publisher for James and the Giant Peach in his native United Kingdom. Longstanding houses sniffed at what they saw as a weird, grotesque fantasy, and some would even claim they took pride in rejecting it. It took a stroke of good fortune for a deal to finally be made. Dahl’s daughter Tessa gave the book to her friend Camilla Unwin, daughter of UK publisher Rayner Unwin (Tolkien fans might recognize the name: It was Rayner who, decades earlier, had recommended publication of The Hobbit to his father, the publisher Sir Stanley Unwin).

Unwin saw how absorbed his daughter was with Dahl’s book and looked into its publication status. Despite being mainly a textbook publisher, Unwin decided to snap up James and the Giant Peach as well as Dahl’s latest at the time, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

10. DAHL TOOK A BIG GAMBLE ON THE PUBLISHING DEAL.

Dahl was so eager to be published and taken seriously in England that he signed a risky deal that would pay him 50 percent of sales receipts—but only after Unwin had recouped production costs. Both books needed to be hits for him to see a payday—and they were. The first printing run completely sold out, and so did the next one, and the one after that. By the early ‘70s, Roald Dahl was a household name in England, and rich to boot.

11. HE DIDN’T WANT IT MADE INTO A MOVIE.

During his lifetime, Dahl turned down numerous movie offers for James and the Giant Peach, reasoning that the story was too difficult to translate to the screen. After his death in 1990, his second wife Felicity (or Liccy as he called her) decided to put the film on market, with the express hope that Henry Selick would take charge. (Selick had directed The Nightmare Before Christmas [1993] and Dahl’s daughter Lucy was impressed by his visual style.) She agreed to Selick’s stop-motion treatment, and the resulting 1996 film got mostly positive reviews.

12. THE BOOK GETS CHALLENGED A LOT. . .

Dahl’s story doesn’t shy away from mature themes like death and child abuse, making it a target for book banners across the country. According to the American Library Association, it was #50 on the list of “Most Challenged Books 1990-1999.” People have also taken offense to the book’s surreal elements and supposed sexual suggestiveness. In 1986, a Wisconsin town banned the book over a scene in which Mrs. Spider licked her lips.

13 . . . BUT DAHL DIDN’T THINK MUCH OF CRITICS.

Dahl’s biographers paint him as a man obsessed with his image as a literary heavyweight, but contemptuous of critics. Adults, he believed, were poor judges of the quality and appeal of children’s books. As Dahl wrote in response to a letter from a young fan of James and the Giant Peach: “Up to now, a whole lot of grown-ups have written reviews, but none of them have really known what they were talking about because a grown-up talking about a children’s book is like a man talking about a woman’s hat.”

14. THERE’S A MUSICAL BASED ON THE BOOK.

Songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul developed a stage adaptation of Dahl’s book, which debuted in 2010 and had extended runs in Seattle and Atlanta. It’s been licensed for school and community productions, meaning you can currently only see it at a nearby high school or local playhouse. You’ll probably get more enjoyment out of the 20-track studio album, which features 2012 film Pitch Perfect’s Skylar Astin, and Broadway stars Brian d’Arcy James and Megan Hilty.

The New York Public Library’s 10 Most Checked-Out Books of All Time

Popartic/iStock via Getty Images
Popartic/iStock via Getty Images

To celebrate the 125th anniversary of the New York Public Library’s opening in 1895, a team of library experts decided it was only fitting to highlight the perennially popular books that have contributed to its success.

They pulled the circulation stats on all print and digital formats of books, analyzed factors like length of time in print and presence in the library catalog, and came up with a list of the library’s 10 most checked-out books of all time.

Topping the list was Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day, the charmingly illustrated, timeless tale of a young boy discovering the wintry wonders of a snow day. It’s been in circulation since its publication in 1962, and it’s far from the only children’s book on the list—in fact, six of the top 10 most borrowed books are meant for a young audience, including Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. As the library explains, this is partly because shorter books have quicker turnover rates, and partly because certain children’s classics appeal to a wide range of readers.

And, of course, it would hardly be a “top books” list if it didn’t include at least one of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came in ninth place, with 231,022 checkouts. One children’s book, however, is conspicuously missing: Margaret Wise Brown’s peaceful bedtime story Goodnight Moon, published in 1947 and seemingly read by just about everyone. According to the NYPL, Anne Carroll Moore, an important children’s librarian at the time of the book's publication, despised the story, so the library didn’t add it to the catalog until 1972. (They gave it an “honorable mention” designation on this list.)

Books can also rack up high circulation numbers if they’re often used in school curriculums, like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, or cover themes that appear (and reappear) in current events—which might explain why George Orwell’s 1984 has been checked out a staggering 441,770 times.

See the rest of the top 10 below, and find out which books made the NYPL’s 2019 most checked-out list here.

  1. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats // 485,583
  1. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss // 469,650
  1. 1984 by George Orwell // 441,770
  1. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak // 436,016
  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee // 422,912
  1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White // 337,948
  1. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury // 316,404
  1. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie // 284,524
  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling // 231,022
  2. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle // 189,550

10 Facts About Jane Austen’s Sanditon

Rose Williams as Charlotte Heywood and Theo James as Sidney Parker in Masterpiece's adaptation of Jane Austen's Sanditon (2019).
Rose Williams as Charlotte Heywood and Theo James as Sidney Parker in Masterpiece's adaptation of Jane Austen's Sanditon (2019).
Simon Ridgway/© Red Planet Pictures / ITV 2019

Jane Austen published just four novels before her death in 1817—Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma—but they, along with posthumously published works like Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, have all become classics of the English-language canon, beloved by readers and adapted countless times for the screen and stage.

Just before her death, however, Austen had planned to add another title to her catalog of novels skewering 19th-century British society. In early 1817, she began a book that would eventually be called Sanditon, which tells the story of an up-and-coming English seaside resort town. Sadly, Austen wasn’t able to complete Sanditon before her death in July of that year—but that hasn’t stopped others from trying to finish the book for her.

A number of writers have attempted to complete Austen’s story since she put it aside in the early 1800s. Most recently, it has become the basis for a British miniseries that premiered in the UK in late 2019 and premiered on PBS on January 12, 2020. Before you dive into the miniseries, here are 10 things you should know about Austen’s final, unfinished novel.

1. Sanditon explores some of the same topics as Jane Austen’s previous novels.

Jane Austen is known for her sharp critiques of the world of England’s 19th-century landed gentry, and Sanditon continues that tradition. It centers on a handful of people in Sanditon, a fictional town along the Sussex coast in southeastern England. Mr. Parker is an eccentric, overenthusiastic developer bent on transforming Sanditon from a quiet village into a fashionable seaside tourist destination.

At the beginning of the novel, he and his wife take in Charlotte Heywood, the elder daughter of a country gentleman with a large family in Sussex, as their guest for the summer. They bring her to Sanditon and introduce her to local society, including Parker’s hypochondriac siblings and his business partner in his resort scheme, the wealthy but tightfisted Lady Denham—plus the poor relations who may be vying for her fortune.

Austen casts a critical eye on each of her characters with her typical cutting wit: Parker is described as “generally kind-hearted; liberal; gentlemanlike, easy to please … with more imagination than judgment,” while Mrs. Parker is “equally useless.” Lady Denham, “like a true great lady, talked and talked only of her own concerns,” while her nephew and heir, Sir Edward Denham, is “very much addicted to all the newest-fashioned hard words, had not a very clear brain” and “had read more sentimental novels than agreed with him.”

2. The town of Sanditon was likely based on a real English resort Jane Austen visited.

East Parade from the pier, Worthing, Sussex, early 20th century
A photo of the pier in Worthing, England in the early 19th century.
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Scholars think that the fictional town of Sanditon was based on a real resort town Austen visited with her family. Austen spent at least a few weeks in Worthing, a seaside town in West Sussex, with her family in 1805, according to the diaries of Austen’s niece Fanny. At the time, Worthing was, like Sanditon, a newly established resort town. According to Antony Edmonds, the author of the 2013 book Jane Austen’s Worthing: The Real Sanditon, Sanditon’s Mr. Parker was probably based on Edward Ogle, a developer who purchased a large estate in Worthing in 1801 and set about turning the small village into a seaside tourist destination. Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra were acquainted with Ogle, and Parker’s home in Sanditon, Trafalgar House, may have been based on Ogle’s estate, Warwick House.

3. Jane Austen didn’t name the novel Sanditon.

Austen herself didn’t title the manuscript that would become known as Sanditon. In the 1871 edition of his biography A Memoir of Jane Austen, Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh published a summary and quotations from her unfinished novel for the first time, calling it simply “The Last Work.” But it may have already been known as Sanditon by Austen’s family; Jane’s niece Anna Austen Lefroy, who eventually inherited the manuscript, referred to it by that name in an 1869 letter. That may not have been Jane’s intention, though; another Austen relative said that she planned to call her novel The Brothers. Lefroy went on to write her own continuation of her aunt’s novel, though she, like Jane, never finished it.

4. Jane Austen didn’t get very far into Sandition before her death.

Novelist Jane Austen is depicted in an illustrated portrait
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Austen spent seven weeks working on Sanditon in 1817, beginning on January 27 and ending on March 18, according to the dates she wrote at the beginning and end of her manuscript. During those short weeks, Austen completed just 11 chapters, along with nine pages of a twelfth. The unfinished text is less than 24,000 words long—less than a third of the length of Austen’s shortest completed novel, Northanger Abbey. Austen abandoned the project as her health declined. Only a few days after she set Sanditon aside, she wrote in a letter, “I certainly have not been very well for many weeks, and about a week ago I was very poorly, I have had a good deal of fever at times and indifferent nights ... I must not depend upon being ever very blooming again.” She died only a few months later, on July 18, 1817.

5. Jane Austen’s nephew and biographer wasn’t sure Sanditon should be published.

James Edward Austen-Leigh expressed trepidation over making his aunt’s final manuscript public. But he was persuaded to at least include a summary and a few excerpts from Sanditon in the 1871 edition of his biography of Jane Austen. He prefaced these excerpts with the warning that it was “difficult to judge of the quality of a work so advanced ... there was scarcely any indication of what the course of the story was to be, nor was any heroine yet perceptible, who, like Fanny Price, or Anne Elliot, might draw round her the sympathies of the reader.” Because of this, he did not publish the unfinished text in full. “Such an unfinished fragment cannot be presented to the public, but I am persuaded that some of Jane Austen’s admirers will be glad to learn something about the latest creations which were forming themselves in her mind,” he wrote.

6. The full text of Sanditon wasn’t available until 1925.

The cover of Jane Austen's 'Sanditon'
Scribner via Amazon

Unlike Austen’s other posthumous publications, including Northanger Abbey (1817) and Persuasion (1818), the full text Sanditon wasn't released until more than a century after the author's death, and more than 50 years after Austen-Leigh first made the novel’s existence known to the public in his biography of Austen. It was first published in 1925 thanks to Austen scholar R. W. Chapman, who transcribed the original manuscript and published it as Fragment of a Novel with Notes.

7. Sanditon received mixed reviews.

Though English novelist E.M. Forster described himself as a “Jane Austenite,” he was not impressed by Sanditon upon its publication in 1925, blaming the author’s declining health for what he perceived as a lackluster work. “Sometimes it is even stale, and we realize with pain that we are listening to a slightly tiresome spinster, who has talked too much in the past to be silent unaided. Sanditon is a sad little experience from this point of view,” he wrote in a 1925 review published in The Nation. But more modern writers have seen the novel fragment more positively. In 2017, critic Anthony Lane of The New Yorker wrote that Sanditon “is robust, unsparing, and alert to all the latest fashions in human foolishness. It brims with life.”

8. Several other writers have tried to “finish” Sanditon since Jane Austen's death.

Writers have been trying to continue the story of Sanditon since the 19th century, but many have struggled with the fact that Austen’s start to the novel introduces a number of colorful characters, but doesn’t give the reader a clear sense of where the plot might be going. Anna Austen Lefroy was the first to try her hand at the task of continuing the story. While some scholars have suggested that Jane had discussed her intentions for Sanditon with her niece during her lifetime, Anna also wrote that the “story was too little advanced to enable one to form any idea of the plot.” In any case, she only wrote about 20,000 words of her continuation before abandoning the project. She left her continuation unpublished, and it wasn’t publicly known until the manuscript appeared at an auction in 1977; even then, it didn’t become available to readers until 1983.

In the century-plus since Lefroy attempted to finish her aunt’s novel, numerous writers have published their own continuations, some of which are more faithful to the original text than others. For instance, there is a 2008 mystery novel that is billed as a continuation of Austen’s work which replaces Sanditon with another fictional English town, Sandytown. In 2013, the creators of the "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries" produced an interactive, modernized interpretation and continuation of the novel in a web series set in California. It was also the basis for a rock musical that debuted in the UK in 2014. As for the latest update of the story? The first episode of the new Sanditon miniseries, which first premiered on Britain’s ITV, sticks closely to the plot Austen wrote. But the subsequent seven episodes are almost entirely the invention of Andrew Davies, the Welsh television writer who adapted the story for television. Davies used Austen’s work as a jumping-off point, but created new characters and story lines as well as, in his words, “sexing it up.” (And yes, that includes what a Financial Times reviewer referred to as “a whiff of incest.”)

9. The creator of the Sanditon miniseries has adapted Jane Austen’s work many times before—to great success.

Rose Williams as Charlotte Heywood in Masterpiece's 'Sanditon' (2019)
Rose Williams as Charlotte Heywood in Sanditon (2019).
Simon Ridgway/© Red Planet Pictures / ITV 2019

Sanditon writer Andrew Davies is already well known for his other literary adaptations for the small screen. He has previously adapted a number of classic English novels for television, including Vanity Fair, Middlemarch, several works by Charles Dickens, and three other Jane Austen novels: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey. His widely beloved 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is credited with catapulting Colin Firth to stardom.

10. The Sandition miniseries’s ending has been divisive for Austen fans ... but the show might be as unfinished as the novel itself.

When the Sanditon miniseries wrapped up its UK run on ITV, some fans were outraged by the show’s finale, which—spoiler alert!—doesn’t feature quite the happy ending that fans of books like Pride and Prejudice might have expected. And how might Jane Austen herself have felt about it? Experts are divided on that, too. “I imagine she’d have switched to Peaky Blinders on BBC after episode one,” Kathryn Sutherland, a Jane Austen scholar at Oxford University, told The Guardian. But Paula Byrne, author of the biography The Real Jane Austen and a literary consultant on the show, told Radio Times that she thinks Austen would have loved it: “I think she would have loved the lavishness and the beauty of the production. I think she would be writing for Hollywood if she was alive today.”

It’s possible that the Sanditon miniseries hasn’t yet reached its conclusion, though. While there hasn’t been official news of a second season of the show, Davies has said that he would love to continue the story. According to Radio Times, he told press in October that “I hope we’ve ended at a point where the audience is going to say: well you can’t end it at that!”

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