by Roald Dahl

Matilda reading, illustrations by Quentin Blake.

Roald Dahl's Matilda
illustrated by Quentin Blake

Book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 9+

Meet Matilda Wormwood

That's the full name of the title character of Roald Dahl's Matilda, though the author never calls her that, and neither should we. (Indeed, she'll likely be getting a different last name after the story ends, as this is a book that ends with a well-deserved, much needed adoption.)

Wormwood, after all, is nasty stuff, the dictionary defining it as a state or source of bitterness or grief. It's an apt name for Matilda's parents, two of the three villains in this story.

And it's not hard to tell the heroes from the villains in Matilda. Author Roald Dahl quite clearly delineates the main characters in the story as either/or. Take Matilda's family, for instance...

  • Dad (Mr. Wormwood) - villain
  • Mom (Mrs. Wormwood) - villain
  • Matilda (youngest child) - hero

Any character not so clearly delineated is simply not very developed. Take the other member of the Wormwood family, Matilda's older brother Michael. The last time he is referenced by name is on p.19. For the next 200 pages, he is just referred to as "the son," as if the author himself forgot the moniker he gave this unformed character!

Good/evil...that's what matters.

What makes five-year-old Matilda a hero in the author's eyes?

  • Her huge intellect
  • Her curiosity
  • Her love of books
  • Her interest in others
  • Her sense of right and wrong, and...

Her willingness--no, eagerness--to dispense justice.

Matilda's awful father, the car salesman Mr. Wormwood

A Dahl villain is even easier to describe. "Stupid" and "mean" pretty much cover it.

But please don't take from this that Matilda is an oversimplified story without much to recommend it. No, this may well be one of the most beloved books of our time. And rightfully so!

Matilda is a reader in a family that disdains books. At five years old, she's already taking herself to the library and devouring adult books. "I am very fond of Charles Dickens," Matilda informs her bottom form (kindergarten equivalent) teacher.

(If you're looking for a children's book that endorses reading, Matilda is it.)

Matilda's father is not just a villain but an actual criminal, rolling back odometers at his used car lot. He takes great pleasure and pride in taking advantage of his hapless customers, and he takes similar delight in treating Matilda like a worthless nincompoop.

The truth is, both Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood are so stupid they can't even perceive that their daughter is smart. Mr. Wormwood in particular takes delight in emotionally abusing his youngest child.

And Matilda will have none of it.

The first quarter of the book is devoted to the abuses Matilda is subjected to and the delightfully clever (and savage) paybacks she plots, using props like

  • superglue
  • peroxide
  • a parrot

Matilda is not a turn-the-other-cheek sort of hero.

When Matilda starts school, the presumption might be that things will get better for her, and indeed she is instantly recognized for the prodigy she is by her timid new teacher, Miss Honey.

Unfortunately, the school's "supreme commander" is a brute of a woman, Miss Trunchbull. Much like Matilda's father, "The Trunchbull" is too mean and too stupid to recognize Matilda's intellect. Still, most of her brutality (a former Olympian, she likes to throw children) is directed at students other than Matilda.  

  “I cannot for the life of me understand why small children take so long to grow up. I think they do it deliberately, just to annoy me.”

 -Miss Trunchbull

She also seems to take special delight in berating Miss Honey.

I don't want to give away the whole story, but what makes Matilda a true hero is not just her willingness to stand up for herself but, as she does at school, for others. In fact, it's Matilda's social precociousness--not just the intellectual--that gains her real insight into just how much deeper The Trunchbull's crimes toward Miss Honey go--and how much they require retribution.

In the end, Matilda plots to make that right, using a late-developing (and likely short-lived) skill she discovers: telekinesis. (Miss Honey's theory is that Matilda's big brain was so under-challenged in her bottom form class that it just had to find something else to do!)

Matilda delights in so many ways. It's an endorsement of reading and thinking, of standing up for both yourself and others. Of course, like many Dahl books, it nags at some of the book censoring types. Why? Obnoxious, neglectful adults, children who don't suffer adult insults silently, and that bit of magic I mentioned.

Frankly, the types of adults who don't like this book make me like it that much more. Introduce yourself to Matilda, a five-year-old who's the most "adult" character in a dark, little world, and who brings light to those with the good sense to appreciate her!

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