James and the Giant Peach is a prime example of one of the things I love most about middle grade fiction: stories for kids can go anywhere and kids, unlike many adults, are willing to accompany the author to the previously unfathomable depths of human imagination. Who else but children could understand and love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Stephen King and William S. Burrows and many other adult writers have written a lot of out there stuff, but none of them touches the absolute insanity of James and the Giant Peach.
So here’s the plot and I swear I’m not making this up (I wish I had, though): James Henry Trotter is a nice boy sent to live with his wicked and abusive aunts after his parents are killed by an escaped rhinoceros. So far, it’s a pretty standard set up, right (Dahl hated parents)? But wait!
One day when James is in the garden he meets a wizard who just happens to be in the neighborhood. Okay, a little strange, but after all, this is children’s fiction. The wizard gives James some magic crystals (awfully nice of him), which James accidentally spills near a peach tree. The crystals enchant the tree so that it grows a peach the size of a large house.
Ninja, I hear you saying, that’s not so very weird. True, Esteemed Reader, but there is more story to come! James tunnels inside the giant peach all the way to its pit where he finds a wooden door. Inside the giant peach are giant insects who are all very happy to see James and are eager to take a voyage with him. Is that weird enough for you? No? Well the insects chew through the stem of the peach and then they and James ride it down a hill, squashing James’ wicked aunts, and into the ocean, where they sail off into the horizon.
What’s stranger than a human boy and his giant insect pals sailing the ocean inside a giant peach? I’m so glad you asked! Because what happens next is sharks attack the peach, eating away at its tasty flesh to eventually get at James and the bugs.
But not to worry. Among the giant bugs is a giant silkworm and a giant spider and they spin long strands of web and silk that James is able to use to lasso seagulls. So the answer to the original query what is stranger than a human boy and his giant insect palls sailing the ocean inside a giant peach is a human boy and his giant insect pals flying to New York in a giant peach by way of hundreds of lassoed seagulls.
Now then, I want you to imagine an adult story in which the plot I have just described to you would fit in. Say we change James to an adult. Say we even end the story by revealing that it was all a dream, something Dahl is too classy to ever do. I can’t think of an adult author who could pull this plot off. But a middle grade author? No problem.
That’s what I love most about kids. When I was a kid and I read this book, I didn't find it the least bit strange that there were giant bugs living inside the giant peach. Kids just sort of go with the flow when it comes to stories, so a writer has a great deal more leeway with the suspension of disbelief.
James and the Giant Peach is a stupendous feat of imagining, and it’s worth reading just for that. But as with all great stories, there’s a little more to this one.
Note how sad James is while living with his aunts, who call him terrible names and mistreat and abuse him. Note how he has no ideas for getting himself out of a bad spot because he has no sense of self worth.
Next, note how the giant bugs praise James for everything he does and how supportive they are of him. In that environment, James flourishes and hatches all sorts of brilliant ideas, such as flying his giant peach to New York.
There’s something to that, I think, and it may be a large part of why James and the Giant Peach has survived years and years of readers and is likely to be read for years to come.
STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.