Reading Matilda, by Roald Dahl, took me back to my childhood. Although I hadn’t read Matilda prior, I was a big fan of Witches. I can recall reading the book, and really questioning if witches were in fact real. What I can enjoy about reading Dahl, now as an adult and an educator, is his humor that is in fact intended for an older audience I believe.
So the story begins by setting up the plot and introducing us to Matilda Wormwood, who is a reading prodigy. She learns to read independently before even entering school, and finds comfort in escaping to the library and reading book after book. The librarian there helps her make her choices, and is amazed that a girl so young is reading such sophisticated literature.
Another aspect to Matilda is her home life, which seems completely unpleasant. Her father is a car salesman, that tampers with the cars he sells to make them appear as new, thus selling cars for much more than they are worth. Her mother is not really interested in being maternal to Matilda, and shows favoritism to her brother. Both parents discourage Matilda from reading books, and at times forbid her, even though she manages to sneak them in the house.
Once entering school, Matilda meets Miss Honey, her teacher, who is a loving and nurturing woman that identifies Matilda’s genius and tries to encourage her to advance in her schooling. She even attempts to have Matilda placed in a higher grade by bringing the matter to the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, who shuts down this idea completely, and now has Matilda on her radar.
The headmistress hates children, and comes up with ridiculous ways to punish them for offences that do not seem serious in nature. As the story unravels we learn that she was once responsible for Miss Honey because she is her aunt and when Miss Honey’s father passed away, she gained custody, of the then child. Miss Trunchbull made Miss Honey’s life a living hell, to say the least, and Miss Honey ultimately manages to escape and build a life of her own, even though she has been essentially robbed of her birthright and her home. The surprising twist of events is that Matilda possesses magic powers, and when she concentrates on something hard enough she can make things move with her mind. Miss Honey helps her to cultivate this ability, and Matilda uses the power against the Miss Trunchbull and her family.
The story ends on a happy note with the Miss Trunchbull gone, and her parents allowing Matilda to live with Miss Honey after they decide to leave because Matilda manages to expose her father for the crook that he is. Even though the ending is a happy one, it still is quite a sad story, considering how this young girl is rejected by her family and must fend for herself. They discourage her genius, and refuse to help her embrace her love of learning.
Even though Matilda is intended for a younger audience, my 9-year-old niece loved it; I would make the book available to my lower level seventh graders, as an independent reading book. I think that the language is sophisticated enough to be appropriate, and there are so many literary elements that can be explored through reading it. I would have the students concentrate on character development, and characterization. I think Dahl excels in creating a visual image of what is being described when reading. I would also provide a visual component, perhaps to have the students create a visual representation of a character in the story, or a setting that is described in the story. This will also give them an opportunity to do a “close reading” of an excerpt and identify the language that enabled their visual interpretation come into fruition. I think Dahl’s language is vivid, and he uses descriptive language in a way that even the most awful of situations become humorous and colorful.