Roald Dahl / The Illustrated

The Magic Finger illustrated by William Pène du Bois

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September 13th is Roald Dahl’s birthday. But before you stick your face in the chocolate lake in celebration, first gorge on these pictures from the original edition of The Magic Finger.

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The Magic Finger was the first Dahl book I remember reading. As an introduction to his children’s books it’s slightly unrepresentative, and perhaps bears more similarity to his short stories for adults. Unlike fantasies such as Charlie, Matilda and the BFG, this story uses a satirical idea to take pot shots at people who hunt birds for sport.

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Like the protagonist of the Magic Finger, Dahl hated hunting and had real life neighbours from Buckinghamshire in mind when he conceived the story. The punishment he metes out to them would have made a great addition to his Tales of the Unexpected.

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The narrator is an eight year old girl, possessed of a Magic Finger which unleashes terrible punishment on people who anger her. For the gun crazy Gregg family, this means trading places with the birds, who move into their house before turning the weapons on them.

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It wasn’t a story Dahl himself was particularly fond of. According to biographer Jeremy Treglown it was commissioned by the American publisher Macmillan as part of a series of children’s stories written by well known authors including Arthur Miller, Sylvia Plath and John Updike. The brief was to write a very short story with words from a vocabulary list they thought suitable for the age range.

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The concept was bizarre – Dahl later thought it grotesque. But he thought it would be easy money and was spurred on by the success of Robert Graves’ marvellous effort, the Big Green Book with art by Maurice Sendak. But Dahl’s efforts were turned down by US Macmillan – who perhaps hadn’t banked on the author turning in an anti-gun story. Instead it was picked up by Allen and Unwin who recruited William Pène du Bois to provide the illustrations.

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Having grown up with the edition illustrated by Joan Aiken’s regular artist Pat Marriott, this version came as something of a surprise. The heroine’s Seventies styled flares are gone, replaced with some very natty fashions. This is an altogether more detailed work with a distinctly Sixties production.

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Pene du Bois seems to be working as hard as he can against the original brief, producing a knowingly arty book which plays with perspective (see the duck’s pointing their guns skywards above), uses art references and even includes a ‘hold to light’ trick in the scene where the narrator’s teacher gets fingered and transforms into a cat in front of your eyes. But the real showpiece comes in the sequence where the Gregg’s lose their wings and tumble back down to earth. Dahl writes it beautifully.

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‘Then the black that was before their eyes turned to blue, to green, to red and then to gold, and suddenly, there they were, standing in lovely bright sunshine in their own garden, near their own house, and everything was back to normal once again’.

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Pat Marriott illustrates this scene as if the family are waking from a bad dream. Quentin Blake conjures a nightmare of scratchy stick figures fighting their way through the murk of thick, cross hatched pencil.

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William Pène du Bois goes to town, producing the children’s book equivalent of the Stargate scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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It’s superbly trippy, and quite unlike any other Roald Dahl book.  I imagine he hated it. Happy birthday Roald.

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