Matilda’s Twenty-fifth

Twenty-five years ago this month, Matilda, by Roald Dahl, was first published.

I don’t recall the first time I first picked it up, but I have this memory of reading (or rereading) the book when I could have been no more than six or seven as our car rolled down a hill in Galway in the night, catching a few words of each sentence as we passed from puddle of streetlight to puddle of streetlight.

If my comprehension of the words was not as great in those days, I still clasped the truth behind them: that it was okay to be smart and love books and that it was probably going to be lonely for a while, but there were other people out there like me, and I would find them someday. And that mattered, because I remember friends at the time who would look at me strangely and ask why I always gave books as presents or tell me to stop buying the ones about dinosaurs because I would eventually ‘buy them all.’

I was a strange child even then.

When I crossed the sea to Canada, it was more of the same. Once I went to the library when I was in Grade 5/6 (they skipped me, sort-of, back into the grade I should have been in) and ran into some people from school. They stared at me, perplexed by the sack of a half-dozen books or so that I was checking out.

‘Are you going to read all of those?’ they had asked.

‘Well of course,’ I believe was my answer. ‘Why wouldn’t I?’

And so on.

I remember seeing the book on our classroom bookshelf around the same time and thinking: Really? That’s the supposed age the book is aiming for? How odd. But then I remembered how the librarian in Matilda, Mrs. Phelps, had told her not to sweat the exact comprehension of things, but to let the words flow over you like music. So it was good that I had read it years ago and then could read it again with greater appreciation, like sampling wine as it aged. It made me unafraid to read looming volumes intended for older audiences, and if Matilda’s reading list was more literary than mine, comprising authors like Faulkner and Hemingway, the principle remained the same.

Matilda made me feel normal for enjoying the company of adults more than children, and feeling smarter than some of those adults in question—sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly. It gave me faith in the great power of the mind to let us endure our trails and give us a way out of our present problems—whether by sticking parrots up chimneys or using telekinetic powers to impersonate ghosts—and to endure cruelty and stupidity with grace.

I think that six year old bibliophile has stuck with me more than I had previously realized until this month. When I put pen to paper, or fingers to keys, characters like her spring to life, filling the poor things I compose with heroines who are quiet, intelligent, and brave and who love books so much that their homes overflow with them. In my mind’s eye, they burn like those street lamps on that hill in Galway, illuminating my words and worlds before me.

So happy 25th Matilda. You occupy a special place in the library of my heart.

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