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.

This Smart Accessory Converts Your Instant Pot Into an Air Fryer

Amazon
Amazon

If you can make a recipe in a slow cooker, Dutch oven, or rice cooker, you can likely adapt it for an Instant Pot. Now, this all-in-one cooker can be converted into an air fryer with one handy accessory.

This Instant Pot air fryer lid—currently available on Amazon for $80—adds six new cooking functions to your 6-quart Instant Pot. You can select the air fry setting to get food hot and crispy fast, using as little as 2 tablespoons of oil. Other options include roast, bake, broil, dehydrate, and reheat.

Many dishes you would prepare in the oven or on the stovetop can be made in your Instant Pot when you switch out the lids. Chicken wings, French fries, and onion rings are just a few of the possibilities mentioned in the product description. And if you're used to frying being a hot, arduous process, this lid works without consuming a ton of energy or heating up your kitchen.

The lid comes with a multi-level air fry basket, a broiling and dehydrating tray, and a protective pad and storage cover. Check it out on Amazon.

For more clever ways to use your Instant Pot, take a look at these recipes.

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Q&A: Kristen Bell Celebrates Diversity In Her New Kid's Book, The World Needs More Purple People

Jim Spellman/Getty Images
Jim Spellman/Getty Images

Kristen Bell is one of those household names that brings to mind a seemingly endless list of outstanding performances in both TV and film. She is Veronica Mars. She is the very memorable Sarah Marshall. She's the voice of Gossip Girl. She just recently wrapped up her NBC series The Good Place. Your nieces and nephews likely know her as Princess Anna from the Frozen films. She also has one of the most uplifting and positive presences on social media.

Now, adding to her long list of accomplishments, Kristen Bell is the published author of a new children’s book called The World Needs More Purple People. Born out of seeing how cultural conversations were skewing more toward the things that divide us, the new picture book—which Bell co-authored with Benjamin Hart—encourages kids to see what unites us all as humans.

We spoke with Kristen Bell about what it means to be a purple person, her new animated series Central Park, and becoming a foster failure. We also put her knowledge of sloths to the test.

How did The World Needs More Purple People book come to be?

Basically my genius buddy, Ben Hart, and I were looking around and sort of seeing how our children were watching us debate healthily at the dinner table, which is fine. But it occurred to us that everything they were seeing was a disagreement. And that’s because that can be fun for adults, but it’s not a good basis for kids to start out on. We realized we were not really giving our kids a ton of examples of us, as adults, talking about the things that bring us together. So The World Needs More Purple People was born.

Book cover of Kristen Bell and Benjamin Hart's 'The World Needs More Purple People'
Random House via Amazon

We decided to create a roadmap of similarities to give kids a jumping off point of how to look for similarities ... [because] if you can see similarities, you’re more likely to walk through the world with an open mind. But if you walk into a conversation seeing only differences, your mind is going to think differently of that person’s opinion and you just never know when you’re going to hear an opinion that might enlighten you. So we wanted to give kids this roadmap to follow to basically say, “Here are some great features that no one can argue with. Have these features and you’ll have similarities with almost everyone on the planet.”

Part of the reason I love the book so much is because it encourages kids to ask questions, even if they're silly. What are some silly questions you’ve had to answer for your kids?

Oh my god. How much time do you have? Once she asked in rapid fire: Is Santa Claus real? Why is Earth? Who made dogs?

How do you even answer that?

It was too much; I had to walk away. Kids have a ton of questions, and as they get older and more verbal, the funny thing that happens is they get more insecure. So we wanted to encourage the question-asking, and also encourage the uniqueness of every child. Which is why Dan Wiseman, who did our illustrations, really captured this middle point between Ben and I. Ben is very sincere, and I am very quirky. And I feel like the illustrations were captured brilliantly because we also wanted a ton of diversity because that is what the book is about.

The book is about seeing different things and finding similarities. Each kid in the book looks a little bit different, but also a little bit the same. The message at the end of the book is with all these features that you can point out and recognize in other people—loving to laugh, working really hard, asking great questions ... also know that being a purple person means being uniquely you in the hopes that kids will recognize that purple people come in every color.

What was it like behind-the-scenes of writing a children’s book with two little girls at home? Were they tough critics?

Shockingly, no. They did not have much interest in the fact that I was writing a children’s book until there were pictures. Then they were like, “Oh now I get it.” But prior to that, when I’d run the ideas by them, they were not as interested. But I did read it to them. They gave me the two thumbs up. Ben has two kids as well, and all our kids are different ages. Once we got the thumbs up from the 5-year-old, the 7-year-old, the 8-year-old, and the 11-year-old, we thought, “OK, this is good to go.”

I hope that people, and kids especially, really do apply this as a concept. We would love to see this as a curriculum going into schools if they wanted to use it to ask: What happened today in your life that was purple? What could you do to make tomorrow more purple? Like as a concept of a way of living.

Weirdly, writing a children’s book was a way of getting to the adults. If it’s a children’s book, there is a high probability an adult is going to either be reading it to you or be there while you’re reading it—which means you’re getting two demographics. If we had just written a novel about this kind of concept, we’d never reach the kids. But by writing a kid's book, we also access the adults.

Your new show Central Park looks so incredible. What can you tell us about the show and your character Molly?

I am so excited for the show to come out. I’ve seen it and it is exceptional. It is so, so, so funny and so much fun. I signed on because I got a phone call from my friend Josh Gad, who said, “I’m going to try to put together a cartoon for us to work on.” And I said, “Yes. Goodbye.” And he and Loren Bochard, who created Bob’s Burgers, took basically all of our friends—Leslie Odom Jr., Stanley Tucci, Kathryn Hahn, Tituss Burgess, Daveed Diggs, and myself—and created a family who lives in the middle of Central Park.

I play a teenager named Molly who is very socially awkward but has this incredible, relentlessly creative, vivacious personality going on only inside her head … and it’s a musical! So, she's awkward on the outside but when she sings her songs she really comes to life. And she's a comic book artist, so the cartoon often switches to what she's seeing in her head.

It's so funny and Josh Gad plays this busker who lives in Central Park, who is the narrator. Stanley Tucci plays this older woman named Bitsy who is trying to build a shopping mall in the center of Central Park, and the family’s job is to basically save Central Park. But the music is so incredible. We’ve got two music writers, Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel, who write the majority of the music, but we also have guest writers that come in every episode. So Sara Bareilles wrote some music and Cyndi Lauper wrote some music. It is such a fun show.

My husband, who does not like cartoons or musicals, watched the first couple of episodes, and he looked at me and said, “You’ve got something really special in your hands.” And he doesn’t like anything. It made me so happy. I cannot wait until this show comes out, I am so proud of it.

What was it like to reunite with Josh Gad on another musical animated series that isn't Frozen?

Josh and I talk a lot, and we had a lot of behind-the-scenes conversations about how we can work together again, just because we adore each other. And part of it is because we get along socially, and part of it is because we trust each other comedically. He's a creator and writer more so than I am, so I usually leave it up to him and say, "What’s our next project?" We have other things in the pipeline we would love to do together, but [Central Park] was an immediate yes because I trust how he writes. Josh is at every single one of my recording sessions; he is very hands-on with the shows that he does or produces or creates. I trust him as much as I trust my husband, creatively, and that’s saying a lot.

Given your well-documented love of sloths, we do have to throw out a few true or false questions about sloths and put your knowledge to the test …

Oh my gosh. OK, now I'm nervous. Hit me.

True or false: Sloths fart more than humans.

Fart more than humans?

Yes.

I’m going to say it's true.

It’s actually false. Sloths don’t fart at all. They might be the only mammal on the planet that does not fart.

You’re kidding. Another reason to love them. You know, I was trying to think medically about it. I know they only poop once a week and that if you only go poop once a week ... I thought, “Well in order to keep your GI healthy, perhaps you have to have some sort of flow from the top to the bottom during the seven-day waiting period until you release.”

True or false: Sloths are so slow that algae sometimes grows on them.

One hundred percent true. In the wild, they’re always covered in algae and it helps their fur, all those microorganisms. But in zoos, they don’t have it.

Nice. OK, last one. True or false: Sloths poop from trees.

No way. They go down to the ground, and they rub their little tushies on the ground, and then they go back up.

You are correct.

I know a fair amount about sloths but the farting thing was new. My kids will be excited to hear that.

We heard recently that you are a part of the “foster failure” club. What went wrong? Erright?

Well, what I learned from Veronica Mars is you root for and cherish and uplift the underdog always. And my first foster failure was in 2018; I found the most undesirable dog that existed on the planet. She is made of toothpicks, it is impossible for her to gain weight. She has one eye. She looks like a walking piece of garbage. Her name is Barbara. She's 11 years old. And I saw a picture of her online and I said, “Yes. I just want to bring her over. I don’t even need to know anything else about her other than this picture," which was the most hideous picture. I mean it looks like a Rorschach painting or something. It was so awful. I was like, “She’s mine. I’ll take care of her. I’ve got this.” And it turns out she is quite lovely even though she can be pretty annoying. But she is our Barbara Biscuit, and she is one of the most charismatic dogs I have ever met. She piddles wherever she damn well pleases. So that is a bummer, because she is untrainable, but we love her.

That was our first failure. Then last year, we genuinely attempted to just foster a dog named Frank. And about two weeks in, I realized Frank was in love with me—like in a human way. He thought he was my boyfriend.

Oh no …

I just felt like … I didn’t even want a new dog—well I shouldn’t say that, because I always want all the dogs—but we weren’t planning on getting a new dog. But I had to have a conversation with my family and I said, “I think it’s going to be like child separation if I separate him. We have to keep him.” And sure enough, he can’t be more than two feet from me at any time during the day.

Does he still give you “the eyes”?

Oh my gosh. Bedroom eyes all day long. I can’t sit down without him like … not even just sitting comfortably in my lap. He has to have my arm in his mouth or part of my hair in his mouth. He’s trying to get back in my womb or something.

That’s love.

Yeah, I said, “What am I going to do? The guy is in love with me. He can live here.” So there is foster failure number two.

Wow, so it’s Frank and Barbara.

Frank and Barbara. And we also have Lola, a 17-year-old corgi-chow chow mix. Who I have had since she was one-and-a-half, who was also a pound puppy. She is our queen bee.

Before you go, we do this thing on Twitter called #HappyHour, where we ask our followers some get-to-know-you questions. If you could change one rule in any board game, what would it be?

I am obviously going to Catan ... oh I know exactly what I would do. In Catan, I would allow participants to buy a city without buying a settlement first. In Catan, you have to upgrade from a settlement to a city first, which is a waste of cards. If you have the cards for a city, you should be able to buy a city.

What was your favorite book as a child?

My favorite book as a child was Are You My Mother?

Aw, I love that one. I forgot about Are You My Mother?

It’s a good one.