James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl tells the story of four-year-old James, who lives with his loving parents in a cottage in the south of England. James’ world is turned upside down when his parents are devoured by a rhinoceros that had escaped from the London zoo and James goes to live with his two horrible aunts. For three years they physically and verbally abuse him, don’t allow him to go beyond the hill, or play with other children. Around the house James is treated as a worker and beaten for hardly any reason, improperly fed, and forced to sleep on bare floorboards in the attic.
One summer afternoon when he is crying in the bushes, James stumbles across a man who gives him a sack of magic crocodile tongues and promises that if James mixes the contents with a jug of water and ten hairs from his own head, the result will be a potion which will bring him happiness and great adventures. James trips and spills the sack onto a peach tree outside his home, which had previously never given fruit. The tree becomes enchanted and begins to blossom. James quickly befriends the insect inhabitants of the peach, who become central to the plot and James’ companions in his adventure.
One reader comments that the short book is very empowering to children because it uses the power of storytelling to show that no matter how bad things may seem, or how bad they get, there is always hope and teaches kids valuable problem-solving skills.
Still, it has been banned for being too scary for the targeted age group, mysticism, sexual inferences, profanity, racism, references to tobacco and alcohol, and claims that it promotes disobedience, drugs, and communism.
A challenge was brought before the school council in Indian River County, Florida, because of the story’s mystical elements involving the magic crocodile tongues which enchanted the peach tree.
The Times of London reported that it was once banned in a Wisconsin town because a reference to a spider licking her lips could be “taken in two ways, including sexual.”
Other challenges involve repeated use of the word “ass,” which resulted in a 1991 challenge in Altoona, Wisconsin. The following year, a woman in Hernando County, Florida, took issue with Grasshopper’s statement, “I’d rather be fried alive and eaten by a Mexican!” as well as references to snuff, tobacco and whiskey. Her complaints to her 10-year-old daughter’s school principal led to a review by the regional school board.
Roald Dahl has consistently written stories that entertain children with morals and life lessons that even adults can appreciate. In James and the Giant Peach, he handles the themes of abandonment, abuse, and redemptive reward with eloquence and justice.
But in a blog by Madeline Holler, she took issue not with the language or drugs, but jokes about physical characteristics.
When she sat down with her first grader to read James and the Giant Peach, she wanted to shield her. Not from the word “ass”, or because there’s whiskey drinking and snuff snorting and child-beating, but because of the physical description of James’ cruel guardians Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. One is very fat and one is very skinny and their features are laughed at, criticized, and meant to be evoke disgust.
This, she says, is the crazy thing about censorship. To hold a book accountable for the entirety of one girl’s self-image seems wrong. Can she hear a story and focus on Dahl’s descriptive, powerful writing style, which includes descriptions of extreme body size to physically illustrate two very extreme personalities?
The dark, cartoonish quality of this book glosses over the unseemly side; reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote cartoons. The violence is so outlandish; it’s hard to take it seriously.
Book challenges and banning is proof to the power of good literature, creative language, and original imagery. While we might have issues with certain realities of the world our children are growing up in; and as troubled as it makes adults to be reminded of these facts as we attempt to shield our children from harm, children’s literature is a great way for them to get a glimpse at the issues that they WILL have to deal with some day.
I can’t think of a single book from my childhood that distorted my morality or sense of self. I was also lucky enough to have a mother who didn’t shield us from the darker aspects of life. If I had an issue or question, it was talked about openly and honestly.
James and the Giant Peach is number 56 on ALA’s list of The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–20001.
Sources: Good Reads, Wikipedia, bookslut.com, Times of London,
© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions