By Roald Dahl
Copyright 1961 by Alfred A. Knopf
Source: Christmas gift 1969 from my aunt
Poor James was leading a perfectly fine life until one day his parents went to London where they were eaten by a rhinoceros who had escaped from the zoo. From then on he is sent to live in the middle of nowhere with his Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge--two exceedingly nasty spinsters who treat James as if he were their slave and don't allow him to leave their hill. Then one day a strange man approaches James at the fence with a bag full of mystery green things and tell him to eat them and they will make his life better. As James' luck would have it, he falls as he goes back up the hill, dropped the bag, and watching sadly as all of the green things disappear into the earth. All is not lost, however. Those little green creatures work their magic on an old peach tree that hasn't produced fruit in years. Soon there begins to grow a single peach that grows and grows until it is so enormous that the aunts are selling opportunities to see it. After the crowds leave, as James is being forced to clean up the mess the crowds have left, he discovers a hole in the peach and follows the tunnel that it is the opening to, only to discover a room in the center, filled with an assortment of insects and bugs that are now as big as he is, thanks to the same magic that grew the peach. One of them, the centipede, goes to work on chewing the peach loose from the tree and soon the group finds themselves bouncing down the hill, landing in the ocean and beginning a great adventure.
Only Roald Dahl can write a book where, in the second paragraph no less, he kills off both parents by having them eaten by a rhinoceros and still call it a children's book! All of his books feature some sort of horrible thing happening to the hero or heroine, all of them include some threat of danger and all of them include some kind of fantastical, magical thing. If they were written today, people would probably rail against them for being too violent for children. Fortunately, they were written years ago, when they could teach the lesson that even the smallest of us can survive and flourish despite the most terrible of odds. On re-reading this book, I'm convinced that Lemony Snicket, of A Series of Unfortunate Events, was heavily influenced by Dahl. I'm sure he wasn't the only one.
The book is also filled with wonderful poems and plenty to keep even an adult entertained. If you have young children, I recommend you read this one with them! I re-read this one as part of a couple of challenges and I found myself reading great passages of it to my 18-year-old who was equally amused.