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.

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born on January 19, 1809.

1. Edgar Allan Poe was the original Balloon Boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. Edgar Allan Poe dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later for Edgar Allan Poe.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. Edgar Allan Poe had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. Edgar Allan Poe's death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

10 Fascinating Facts About the Thesaurus for National Thesaurus Day

iStock.com/LeitnerR
iStock.com/LeitnerR

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. Thesaurus comes from the Greek word for treasure.

Greek lettering.
iStock

Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean "treasure." It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. The plural of thesaurus is thesauruses or thesauri.

Row of old books lined up.
iStock

How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses to octopi to octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. Early thesauruses were really dictionaries.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
iStock

Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes's books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A Greek historian wrote the first book of synonyms.

Stacks of books surrounding an open book and a pair of glasses.
iStock

Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. An early Sanskrit thesaurus was written in the form of a poem.

Sanskrit lettering.
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In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A British doctor wrote the first modern thesaurus.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
Thomas Pettigrew, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. The thesaurus has a surprising link to a mathematical tool.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
Joe Haupt, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log-log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log-log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. The Oxford English Dictionary has its own historical thesaurus.

Synonyms for
iStock

In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. One artist turned his love of words into a series of thesaurus paintings.

Mel Bochner,
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. There's an urban thesaurus for all your slang synonym needs.

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
Effie Yang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course. The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

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