A Whole Lot of Things in This World: James and the Giant Peach

When I was a kid, I lived by the seaside. This will become relevant (sort of) later in this review, but I thought I’d start off with it as a pleasant, small-talk sort of thing. The place where I lived, by the seaside, also had a whole range of hills on the opposite side of town from the sea, and a little way along the coast there were some cliffs.

Imagine my joy, then, when – at the age of eight – I began reading James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. Not only did some kind of magic happen, in the first few pages, to get the titular James away from his horrible aunts, but that magic then caused James to roll down a hill (a hill near the sea!) and set off on an adventure which would come to involve, among other things, seagulls, of which we had plenty. This, I decided, was going to be my kind of book.

James and the Giant Peach, first edition cover

Nostalgia aside, James and the Giant Peach is something of a modern classic for a whole host of reasons – the most important of which is that it has now been enjoyed, by children and those reading to them alike, for over fifty years. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that people frequently try to get it banned in assorted countries, and what is a classic without a little controversy? James and the Giant Peach is a story with timeless appeal thanks to its themes of triumph over adversity, adventure and escape.

James Henry Trotter, orphaned aged 4 when a rhino ate his parents, lives with his aunts Spiker and Sponge, two women who seem alike only in their verbal and physical cruelty to the poor boy. He’s effectively their drudge until one day, while crying over his misfortunes, a mysterious figure appears with a bag – the contents of which, if mixed into a potion and drunk, will solve all James’ problems, the man promises. But it’s not to be – James spills the contents when he trips over the roots of the barren old peach tree in his aunts’ garden… and a peach begins to grow.

Given the title of the book, I don’t think we can really consider it a spoiler if I tell you that the peach does not stop growing when a less adventurous or more prudent peach might have. If you’ve not read it, however, or seen the 1996 film adaptation, you might be intrigued to learn that it’s not just the peach that’s affected by James’ magic-spilling accident… The result is a thrilling journey as lonely James makes new friends, travels the world, and does battle with a mysterious foggy foe before finding himself in a far-off land…

Despite the occasionally rather dark themes that sometimes cause concerns for the adults who consider reading it to their children, James and the Giant Peach is actually a pretty inspiring read. It may be an accident that sets James off on his quest, but it’s his commitment to teamwork and his resourcefulness that see him through many of the trials he faces. And yes, there are moments that had a younger version of your reviewer holding her breath to see if her heroes would survive the mortal peril they were in, and yes, some of them still get her heart pounding now, and alright, a couple of grown-ups may or may not get squished. But what is a kids’ story without a few good grown-up squishings?

I hardly dare touch on the other characters that keep James company on his trip for fear of utterly ruining some of their delightfully surprising quirks, but rest assured that the whole thing is a masterpiece. If you are thinking of reading it to a very young child but haven’t read it yourself yet, I’d advise a pre-reading just to gauge if you think the kid can handle it, but if you’re reading it for yourself and you’re over… well, we were given it in school at eight, but perhaps ten to be on the safe side. If you’re over ten years old and reading it to yourself you should be fine.

And you know what? However old you are, I think you’ll enjoy it. Enjoy your adventure!

Eleanor Musgrove (really fancies a peach now, actually)

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